Originally printed in the zine "Entr'acte"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHEN I TRY TO SPEAK…

(1998)

 

When I try to speak

my throat is cut

and, it seems, by his hand

and he sleeps on

Yet always the tissue

Grows over, white as silk

Hardly a blemish

Maybe a hieroglyph for scream

 

"Meditations for a Savage Child"

Adrienne Rich

 

 

 

 

 

 

'Blood is a sacred poison.'

 

Somebody had said that. Tim Bayliss was sure somebody had said that. He just wasn’t sure who. It sounded like one of those darkly meaningful statements his partner tended to pronounce from the driver's side of the Cavalier in the small hours of the late shift. Except he knew Frank hadn't said it. Bayliss rarely forgot anything Frank Pembleton uttered in the course of their stormy, six-years' partnership. Maybe Gee had said it during one of his particularly Sicilian moments, or Munch, as yet another manifest irony, or Meldrick in his more somber, street-prophet mode– such a collection of profound individuals in one place, the Homicide Unit of Baltimore Police Department.

 

Whoever had said it, Bayliss wondered whom they’d been looking at when that truth had burst upon them, a parent, a sibling, a more distant relative? The truth of the poison you didn’t need to ingest, couldn't drain out of your body, poison already there in your veins, inescapable, as you sat across a rickety kitchen table from, say, an uncle: blood of my blood, brother of my father, butcher of my childhood.

 

But no, you just led me to the slab. My father cut across my eight-year-old throat and let my voice bleed out.

 

Last spring, on the rooftop of their headquarters, he'd told his partner the only way out of hate was to forgive. Have you done that, Frank had asked him, have you forgiven? The answer he could not give then hadn't changed since: Not quite, Frank, can't quite manage it. He could almost hear his partner admonish: Well, do something right then, hate better. Bayliss found himself sighing, making his uncle look up from his breakfast. Wish I could, bunk, I wish I could. Wanna give me some pointers here? Frank Pembleton could be scourging in his wrath toward, even, God.

 

And if I’m late again, me. The chair creaked as Bayliss rose. Everything in this house creaked. Or rattled. Or moaned. It was a discontented house. "I have to go. I'm going to be late."

 

"The john's broken," the old man half-whined and half-coughed into his scrambled eggs. "Water won’t stop running, keeps me awake."

 

Bayliss sighed. "It just needs a new plunger. I have to go now. I'll take care of it tomorrow."

 

"I can't sleep, Timothy, it keeps me awake."

 

"I said I'll take care of it tomorrow." As much as the man drank, it must've been years since he could tell the difference between falling asleep and passing out. "There's tuna salad in the refrigerator and I got you fried chicken for dinner. Don't forget to take it out of the box and put it in foil if you want to heat it."

 

"I'll have to sleep on the couch again."

 

"Yeah, you do that." Nothing else keeps you awake, Uncle George? Not a single item from the long list of incidents that took me from age five to thirteen? He'd been a small child, almost delicate. Probably one more reason for his father's disdain. At thirteen, suddenly, and it seemed now to him between one breath and the next, he'd shot up to nearly his full height, tall even for an adult, so fast and uncontrollably that the adolescent clumsiness of those years still plagued him. Whether he'd grown big enough to be intimidating or too old for the tastes of a pedophile, his uncle had finally left him alone. "I'll be by tomorrow." He left quickly, before the old man could press him for a specific hour.

 

It had been a mild winter so far, but the cold January morning bit deep, making him jog to his car. He was hurriedly groping in his pocket for his keys when something needle-sharp pricked him. He yanked out his hand, stuck his finger in his mouth. He sucked the droplet of blood, taken aback as always at liking the dull-sweet taste of it, then searched his pocket carefully.

 

One of Julianna's earrings he'd picked up from under his pillow to return to her had separated from its frog-clip. At least the little round guards that clipped onto the posts of medals and insignias was called that. He didn’t know if it applied to earrings. He also didn't know why Julianna kept leaving bits of herself scattered through his apartment when, unless she was sleeping off a drunk, she had such trouble leaving herself there for the duration of a night. Of course, neither did he know why the woman who seemed intent on hollowing him out clear to his bones in the night would get so offended when approached in the morning. She'd been both sober and agreeable last night and had stayed over. In the morning, as often for his mornings, he'd been in the mood and for once she’d had no hangover -- well, he had thought it was a good idea. Wrong. Again.

 

He replaced the little gold clip, pulled out his keys and got into his car. He started the engine, put the heater on high, shivered at the initial cold blast from the vents, then loosened his neck and shoulder muscles as warm air washed over him. Okay, no need to make a federal case out of it. It wasn't the first time he'd been turned on only to be turned down, wasn't likely to be the last. He'd return her earrings. If she was still pissed off at him, he'd do what he’d been too hot and bothered to do earlier and apologize.

 

She was a beautiful, intelligent woman. If she had some demons, hell, who didn't? Yes, she was difficult, but Tim Bayliss could do difficult like no one else. Who'd fashioned, if not the smoothest, the longest running partnership of the Homicide Unit from Detective-I-don’t-want-a-partner-Frank-and-I-damn-sure–don’t-want-you-Pembleton? A successful partnership, too, the kind that closed cases and turned red to black.

 

Of course, Francis Xavier Pembleton was worth every effort. He took every effort, too, as high maintenance as any thoroughbred.

 

Still, he'd invested almost a month in Julianna Cox, something of a record in Tim Bayliss' life in the last decade or so. There was a lot to be said about frequent sex and having someone to share his holidays. On the wrong side of thirty-five and with a track record in relationships that only consisted of starts, sputters and stops, how much more could he ask for? His one abiding relationship, in fact, was with his partner -- about which fact Pembleton's only commentary would be: You're pathetic; get a life.

 

Actually, this holiday season, miracle of miracles, Frank had managed to remember he had one more significant other in his life. Of course, his new-found hospitality was due, in some part to Mary, but in main to that true miracle with Frank's eyes and Mary's nose, with Frank's mouth and Mary's smile: Olivia. For Tim Bayliss, a grace upon the world. He loved Frank Jr., too, but since the day he’d first looked into her crib and found her curled there like a warm, tiny bud taking her sweet time to open, so new and so perfect, Olivia had been special. Olivia seemed to think Uncle Tim was pretty special, too. Or maybe just amusing. In any case, she clearly enjoyed his company. All of which was making Frank invite Tim over more frequently than usual. Since Frank's 'usual' was synonymous with 'never' --okay, just to be scrupulously fair, 'hardly ever'-- any invitation was a rare and beautiful thing.

 

Chances were, Frank considered it less troublesome than getting his daughter a puppy. Tim was housebroken and he didn't shed. A puppy couldn't change a diaper or two, or give piggyback rides, or happily baby-sit the night he wanted to take his wife out -- okay, so maybe Frank’s motives were less than generous. The thought of Olivia was still enough to brighten up a particularly cheerless morning.

 

Tim Bayliss put the car in gear and headed toward Fells Point.

 

***

Life without caution

the only life worth living

love for a man

love for a woman

love for the facts

protectless

 

"Leaflets"

Adrienne Rich

 

Frank Pembleton was having a good morning. It was busy, which was, when compared to chaotic or haphazard, particularly good indeed. He never slept much, so it had been no trouble to have breakfast on the table when Mary woke up to feed the baby. He'd showered and dressed while Mary ate and got Frank Jr. ready, and by the time Livvy was sitting up and asking to be noticed, he was able to take over. Whatever Tim, or oft-times Mary, claimed, a reasonable order could be maintained in a household with one baby, one toddler, and two working parents. It just required a little forethought and organization.

 

He even had time to watch his wife as she came down the stairs in her tapered black skirt and red silk blouse and appreciate all over again what a strikingly handsome woman she was. With that outfit, though, he preferred the large hammered-gold jewelry she'd worn when they'd gone out last time. They gave her that Queen of the Nile look -- Nefertiti, eat your heart out. The pearls she'd chosen today made her look too prim, made her look like her mother.

 

But there was no need to spoil a perfectly good morning. "I have plenty of time to drop the kids off before work," he generously offered, "Why don't you take it easy? Sit down, read the paper, have another cup of coffee."

 

She crossed her arms, raised her chin, tilted her head and gave him a pointed look -- Uh-oh. "What?" he asked, struck again by how alike Mary and Tim were in their displeased-with-Frank mannerisms.

 

"You'll drop them off?"

 

"I just said so, didn't I?"

 

"Where exactly do you think you'll drop them off?"

 

Obviously, 'day care' was not the answer. By the same token, the question either had no right answer or he hadn't a chance in hell of coming up with it. Best to wait her out. He had two partners to his life and neither suffered in silence. At least, so it seemed to him. They tended to claim otherwise.

 

Mary aimed a long and withering glare at him. Now that was unlike Tim, who never could let an eye-to-eye confrontation between them last long. For the life of him Pembleton couldn't figure out why his wife was so exasperated. He hadn't put a single foot wrong all morning. He had even managed not to let out a peep when he'd found her cup in the sink, unrinsed, the remnants of her coffee fast drying into tar.

 

She shook her head as if at a lost cause, turned away and reached into the closet for her coat. "What's today? And don't quote me the calendar."

 

Well, in that case, he was again an answer short. He reached past her, pulled out the coat and held it for her.

 

She pushed her arms through and let him settle it over her shoulders. "Well?"

 

"Well?" The nuns used to do this, too, draw out pronouncing his sins so the anticipation was worse than the punishment.

 

She sighed again. "It's my parents' anniversary, Frank. I've been telling you since Christmas they want to celebrate with a family dinner."

 

Okay, that explained the pearls. A family dinner. Now that Mary had been fruitful and multiplied. The Whelans hadn't been so inclusive when their daughter had only a mere husband. Lately they'd managed to uproot themselves from their beloved New York and settle in D.C., and wasn't that a deliberate kick in the gonads? For years they'd resented, even reviled, him for taking their only child out of civilization into the wilds of --gasp!-- Baltimore, but the moment Mary wanted a separation from him, there they were, packed up, moved and settled further south than they ever cared to be, conveniently close to where Mary happened to work.

 

"I told you the kids will be with them today," she went on. "We'll join them after work and we're all going to sit around a table like a real family and have dinner. For once, no pissing contests with my dad, no shouting matches. And, yes, my mom tends to overcook the food, but you tend to burn it, so I don't see where you have room to criticize."

 

He grimaced. He had caught the burning oatmeal before the smoke alarm, cleared away the mess and scrubbed the pot to a shine it hadn't known since it had left its factory. She could've let it go without a mention. Which was, of course, her point. "I'm going to love your mom's food," he lied shamelessly. "I'll be on my best behavior, promise."

 

Why any couple would want to spend their anniversary with children and grandchildren was beyond him. He hoped he and Mary never got that bored with each other, and found himself scared by that thought. He had every reason to be scared; it was only six months since she'd returned home and four since her risky delivery. He still wondered if she would have come back to him without that second, unexpected pregnancy. As she was leaning over to pick up Olivia, he pulled her into his arms, wrapped them tight around her. "I love you, Mary." He buried his face into her neck and breathed in her soothingly familiar scent, "I love you so much."

 

"Oh, Frank…." There was another sigh in her voice, but now it was an indulgent one. "I know." She turned her head to kiss him sweetly and patted his arm. "But that's going to be poor excuse if you're late tonight."

 

He held her a little longer and she seemed in no hurry to pull away, but workday loomed closer with each minute, the AM station reported backups on the B-W Parkway, Frank Jr. started to fuss, and Livvy was diligently working her way free of her shoes and socks. Of late, life as usual in the Pembleton household. His Shining-City-on-the-Hill, as he'd once told Brodie. Recently doubled in population, noisy and hectic like never before, but his very own.

 

***

…as often when the air

Moves inward toward a silent core of waiting,

How with a single purpose time has traveled

By secret currents of the undiscerned

into this realm. Weather abroad

And weather in the heart alike come on

Regardless of prediction.

 

"Storm Warnings"

Adrienne Rich

 

Chris Rawls found his way back from the alley into the kitchen of his restaurant more by rote than intent. He closed the heavy metal door behind him and leaned into its support for a moment, trying to collect himself. He realized he was still gripping the garbage bags that had been his reason for going out. He dropped them, or maybe they just fell.

 

"What's wrong?" Noreen, his hostess, asked, frowning at the trash that had rattled and drawn her attention. "The dumpster's too full?"

 

I'd say. Rawls was gripped by an insane urge to laugh. He swallowed it down, alongside the urge to throw up. Bile roiled at the junction of his stomach and esophagus. Damn Raymond. He was the busboy, he should've taken out the trash before he'd left last night.

 

And what if the corpse had been put in the dumpster earlier than that? What was he doing, wishing that sick, bloody sight on an eighteen-year-old boy? He was a grown man. Once upon a time he'd seen a lot of ugliness, even death, results of neglect, drugs, disease. He could handle it, of course he could -- or maybe not. Somebody had started a pot of sauce, the normally comforting smell of simmering tomatoes triggered the image of red-wet pulp -- where he'd expected to see a face. His stomach clenched. People should have faces, even dead people were supposed to have faces.

 

"What's the matter?" Noreen approached, now concerned. "Chris, are you okay?"

 

"Yeah," he lied, "I'm fine." The customary sights and sounds of the Zodiac as the kitchen staff was arriving and picking up their morning routines looked grotesque to him. How strange that when violence side-slammed the normal, it was the normal that suffered. He was familiar with that skewed perception, having lived and even slept with it for years. He'd worked hard to fashion for himself a calm, quiet corner of the world since then, and he guarded it carefully.

 

Noreen was taking note of the fact he was still barring the door with his back. "Is somebody out there? Did some creep do or say something to you?" Not an unreasonable concern. Alleys in gay neighborhoods weren't the safest of places, even in daylight. What was unreasonable was Noreen, wispy as a willow weed, looking ready to go through him and the door to give a piece of her mind to whatever lurked out there.

 

It steadied him. He pushed off the door. Time to deal with it. "Nobody there you need to worry about, but don't let anyone go out the back. Be an angel and put on a pot of coffee, will you? I'll explain soon's I can." In other circumstances, she'd have snapped she wasn't the kitchen help, but right then she simply took a closer look at him to confirm that he was as okay as he claimed and went to the coffee maker.

 

Chris Rawls really wanted a stiff drink, but caffeine would have to serve. He had to talk to the police soon. Having alcohol on his breath this time of the morning would give the cops a convenient reason to peg him as just another dissolute fag. They'd peg him with some unflattering adjective anyway, he couldn't help that, but he could help giving them a reason.

 

As any rational gay man living and running a modest business in Urban, USA, the less he had to do with the police, the better he liked it. But there was a dead man right outside the backdoor of his restaurant, in the dumpster he rented from the city. Besides, the obscene incongruity of the satin and lace teddy on the otherwise nude corpse screamed hate crime. Added to the recent murder of a gay man outside another Mt. Vernon establishment, it hit too close to home. Chris Rawls was not militant or radical, but he knew responsibility when it became his own.

 

He'd call the police without delay. He'd be polite, or at least inoffensive. He was a realist, he didn't expect much consideration in return. He picked up the phone, thinking: It's going to be a thankless day.

 

~*~*~

 

PART 1

 

The police arrive at dawn

like death and childbirth.

City of accidents, your true map

Is the tangling of all our lifelines.

 

"The Will to Change"

Adrienne Rich

 

"Do me a favor and don't turn it into one of those days, okay?" Frank Pembleton said. Except for a let's go, it was the only thing he'd said to his partner since the start of their shift.

 

"Good morning to you, too," Tim Bayliss answered placidly. It was early yet, they were driving to their first call. Ever since he'd lost his nicotine-and-caffeine-crutch to a stroke, Frank took longer than usual to locate his interpersonal skills in the morning. Civility would arrive later, if at all. "Define 'those days,' will you?"

 

"Just remember I didn't choose this call. It was our turn."

 

"What is it?"

 

"Partially nude dead male in an alley off Read in Mt. Vernon, figure it out."

 

A primarily gay area, but not one of the rougher ones, and not enough reason to start in on one's partner. A bad-natured Pembleton was normal duty-hazard. A gratuitously bad-natured one was above-and-beyond. "Pardon me for asking, but how was your morning this morning, Frank?"

 

They saw the black&whites mid-block as they rounded the corner. "My this morning was fine." He drove up to the yellow crime tape. "It's my tonight that's going to bite my ass."

 

Bayliss snorted, "So, what the hell, you'll console yourself by chewing out mine all day."

 

"It's a case like any other case, that's all I'm saying." He parked the car angled toward the sidewalk and turned off the motor.

 

"Yeah, Frank, I know. Verbally, you're a tower of restraint."

 

Pembleton, who never missed a point, chose to miss that. "Better than running off at the mouth about everything."

 

Tim Bayliss ground his teeth.

 

They exited simultaneously, closed their doors with somewhat harder shoves than absolutely necessary, took a brief moment to glare at each other over the roof of the car, then fell in step and headed for the alley together. By their standards, it was a mellow morning. Their conflicts were like the fireworks over Fort McHenry. If you couldn't see and hear them from three counties away, they weren't worth noticing.

***

 

Chris Rawls was standing to one side of the alley, giving the names of his employees and neighbors to an uniformed cop, when he saw the plainclothesmen arrive. The Coroner was on the scene already. These two had to be from Homicide. The black detective drew his eye right away. With his close-shaved head and deep dark complexion, compact and impeccable --really, who'd wear a pristine white trenchcoat to a dumpsite murder?-- the man had the kind of presence that called attention to itself. He could be bad news. Most African-Americans considered hate crime to be a term that only applied to the victimization of their own race. To them, gays were undeserving interlopers -- as if being hated and hounded, beaten and killed was a prize anybody would vie for.

 

While helping the patrolman with the correct spellings of the names, Rawls glanced at the other detective -- oh, good, the man couldn't have given more than a cursory look at the body and he was already involved with the M.E. over something. Judging by their expressions and body language --hers, exasperated; his, bewildered-- something personal. Wonderful.

 

Eventually, the black detective approached with his partner in tow, extended a greeting and his hand. "Hi, how're you doing? You're Chris Rawls?"

 

"Yes." He accepted the handshake, noting the partner didn't offer one, and neither man offered the courtesy of a name or even a title. Thankless day, indeed.

 

"You found the body?"

 

"When I came out to dump last night's trash, yes."

 

The other detective finally had a contribution to make, "You have any idea who it is?"

 

What, he hadn't noticed the lack of a face? "Well, it was kind of hard to recognize." Despite the lousy first impression, now that he was looking at him at close quarters, Rawls noticed how tall the man was, then couldn't help noticing how attractive he also was. "You guys want to talk inside? I just put on a fresh pot of coffee."

 

The detectives consulted with each other by sharing a glance and agreed. "Yeah," from one, "Okay," from the other. But immediately the tall one changed his mind, "You know something, I'm gonna be just a second. Julianna -- uh, Dr. Cox, can I talk to you?" and off he was again after the woman.

 

Attention span of a gnat, obviously.

 

The black detective chose to pause and wait for his partner to rejoin him. What was that about, safety in numbers while in queerdom? Rawls shrugged and went inside. He could get seriously angry, except what good would it do? Throwing his temper up against their disinterest would accomplish precisely nothing. So he'd go to the other extreme, be polite and helpful enough to make their teeth ache.

 

He'd earned his living by selling one thing or another since the age of fifteen, had learned early your wares had to appeal; repel and you starved. Right then, he needed to sell to two homicide detectives that a victim in a crime with homosexual overtones was nevertheless a murdered human being. Others could carry the placards and shout the protests. In his experience, it was harder to ignore a pleasant man looking directly at you than a hostile crowd you didn't have to meet eye-to-eye.

 

He made sure he had Noreen close at hand when the detectives finally joined him, started introductions, and trailed off as if only then realizing he was lacking information. "I'm sorry, I must've been too preoccupied to catch your names."

 

"Pembleton," said the black man, "Tim Bayliss," added, with a first-name bonus, his partner. Yep, flies and honey.

 

"We'll all have some coffee, Noreen, please."

 

Detective Pembleton started to nod, caught a pointed glare from his partner, scowled and changed his mind, "Not for me, thanks."

 

Rawls showed them to a table. As soon as they settled in Bayliss flipped open a new page in a memo pad, poised his pen over it -- he had great hands, long, elegant fingers and, Rawls noted in passing, no wedding band. "So when was the last time someone checked that dumpster?"

 

Damn, he was good looking. Not flashy, more quietly appealing -- nice eyes, amber-brown, behind wire-rimmed glasses, lovely, wide mouth deeply curling into its edges, a charming upturn to the nose, and a neck that should be reason enough to outlaw collars. Unfortunately, the rest of him was swaddled in layers of loose clothing. "Evening before last," Rawls answered. "Raymond, the busboy, usually takes the trash out at closing time. I took it out this morning 'cause he left early last night -- Thanks," he said to Noreen who 'd come back with the coffee. As she leaned to put the cups down, Rawls noticed Bayliss noticing the low-cut of her little black dress.

 

He really should stop his own noticing then. He'd already calculated that, ten-to-one odds, Bayliss was straight. One, by sheer percentages. Two, any gay man with such long acres of himself to show off would package it better. Three, the man's typically lost behavior while interacting with the woman out there. And now the obvious interest in breasts. No use swimming against the tide.

 

"You think this is a hate crime?" he brought up the subject the detectives might prefer to avoid unless prompted.

 

"The lingerie, the severity of the beating -- " Bayliss nodded, " -- maybe. Or sex crime."

 

"Is your restaurant clientele mostly homosexual?" Pembleton wanted to know.

 

Oh, no, straights rush to Read Street eateries in droves. "Predominantly, yes. Why?"

 

"I guess what I'm trying to ask is whether leaving the body in your dumpster is some sort of a message. Do you have enemies?"

 

"Besides Jesse Helms?" Probably a wasted joke. "No. Do you think this is connected to Philip Robson's murder?"

 

Pembleton didn't recognize the name, but Bayliss did. In some detail, too. "He was the bartender at the White Crow. A couple of months ago. Munch is working the case," he informed his partner, then asked Rawls, "Did you know Mr. Robson?"

 

"Not personally, but everybody in the community has been following the investigation." A fair enough warning that they'd be following this one, too. Closely. "I don't suppose you have a suspect?"

 

"Not at this point, we don't, no."

 

"There's been any incidents at your restaurant?" Pembleton asked. "Fights, for example?"

 

"No, this is a quiet neighborhood place. A little pasta, a little red wine, the best tartuffo in Baltimore. I've seen a few lovers' quarrels, but nothing violent." He made the mistake of looking at Tim Bayliss while Tim Bayliss was not looking at him, allowing him to recklessly linger over the soft curve of the cheek, the way the dark smooth cap of his hair set off his lucent skin so nicely.

 

"Well, okay." Bayliss flipped his memo pad closed, slid his pen into his pocket. "We appreciate your cooperation."

 

"If there's anything more I can do, please, don't hesitate to ask. I'm sure you're going to run into some people who don't have the highest regard for the Baltimore Police Department." Wasn't it only about an hour ago he counted himself among them? He still didn't discount himself from among them, but suddenly he was willing to be persuaded otherwise. "Relations between your community and mine are -- " he understated, " -- a little strained."

 

"Look, Mr. Rawls, we don't have an agenda of any kind," Pembleton assured. He sounded sincere about it. "We're just working a murder."

 

"Two," Rawls corrected.

 

"Excuse me?"

 

"Philip Robson."

 

"Right." But clearly, Robson was no concern of his. He was agreeing for form's sake.

 

They all rose. "We need you, we'll give you a call." Bayliss reached to shake hands. "Thank you."

 

The long fingered, slender hand wrapped firmly around his, Detective Bayliss smiled and suddenly it was impossible not to think of a hundred and one uses for that beautiful mouth. For a very good reason Chris Rawls had trained himself to speak slowly and leave room to think before he opened his mouth. All his life he'd had to curb his impulsive side. Every once in a while, it still escaped.

 

Like now. "By the way, Detective?" Well, there was that one percent, wasn't there? Still, he couldn't come out and say: You have a lovely neck and I'd like to nibble on it for the next three days. He said it in the only acceptable way, "I like your tie." Get it, pretty man?

 

"Hmh?" Instead of continuing to meet Rawls' eyes, the way he would have if he realized a piece of cloth was not the point, Detective Bayliss bent his head to consider his rather ordinary tie. "Thanks." He looked up, nodded politely and turned to go.

 

Nope, not a clue.

 

Pembleton had stopped in such a way that his partner came up short against him and for all the world it looked like a body tackle to remind a wayward Bayliss his place. In Detective Pembleton's case, Rawls realized, too much of a clue.

 

Okay, fine, he shouldn't have been playing with fire anyway. However tempting he happened to find it. Besides, he wasn't likely to see anything of them in any near future. How much priority would they give to this case?

***

 

"No, Frank, he wasn't flirting with me. He just liked my tie."

 

When was Tim going to grow up? How could he have not noticed that Chris Rawls had been all but drooling over him? "I'm just saying you haven't always been comfortable with the gay community," Pembleton decided to stick to generalities. He'd leave the how-to-tell-when-a-man-is-hitting-on-you lecture for some other time, right after the one about the jolly-man-in-the-red-suit. "I'm giving you a compliment." He opened the door on the driver's side.

 

"Thank you," Bayliss expansively said across the roof of the car and got in.

 

"So what do you think?" Pembleton asked as he started driving. "Domestic gone sour?"

 

"Or an S&M scene that got out of hand," Bayliss suggested, scribbling in his ever-present notepad. "Or both," he added, proving he had indeed grown up some since his first day on the Homicide roster, when Kay and Beau had rid themselves of him by dumping him onto Pembleton's crime scene. Timothy Bayliss of those days, who'd come complete with his I'm-a-geek row of pens lining the pocket of his off-the-rack suit, his goofy grin, and a ten-year-old's haircut falling into his too-earnest eyes, could not have considered S&M scenes and domestics inclusively. "Could be a hate crime, I guess, but wouldn't a homophobe lose it long before a man strips down to a teddy?"

 

"Depends on how much humiliation he wanted to inflict. We'll just have to wait for the M.E's report -- how long have you been seeing Cox?"

 

"Since the holiday bash at the Waterfront. Doesn't matter, it's over, she made that clear -- one thing for sure, the victim wasn't walking around the streets dressed like that. And he wasn't small. Even with a car, somebody moved him, lifted him high enough to drop him into the dumpster. More than one perp?"

 

"Or a very strong one." He remembered the face that wasn't. "And full of rage -- you could've brought her along when you came over for dinner, you know."

 

"I don't think she knows people start out as children -- if the fingerprints don't come up, we have a problem. I doubt there're enough dentals left to be much use."

 

"May have to fall back on canvass. Big blue eyes and helpful disposition notwithstanding, we can't discount Rawls, his employees or his clientele."

 

"Or the other area residents -- they're green."

 

"Huh?"

 

"Rawls' eyes -- we should stop by Missing Persons -- they're green, not blue."

 

Oh? He'd noticed? Frank Pembleton honked his horn stridently at a car that, if not warned, may have cut him off. He glared at the other driver while passing him. The other driver looked perplexed.

 

"But maybe we should let the post-mortem narrow it down first," Bayliss suggested as if offering a peace token.

 

"It'd be a stupid waste of time otherwise," he snapped.

 

"You're right, Frank." Tim Bayliss put away his notepad. "We'll wait."

***

 

The Zodiac had been bursting at the seams. Noreen was going to sulk at him for taking off and saddling her with the crowd, but Rawls had felt obligated in so many ways. Contrary to all his expectations, the two Homicide detectives had shown up at the Zodiac the same evening, having narrowed down the identity of the victim to less than a dozen men in all of Baltimore. To someone who had been living, breathing, and eating at his restaurant only the night before. Maybe to someone he knew quite well. How could he not offer to help?

 

Detective Pembleton parked directly in front of the Carnivale, one benefit of riding in a police car, and the partners followed Rawls into the club. There was a full-blown party in swing here, too. Unusual for a weekday, but it wasn't a normal weekday. Violence visited on one from their ranks brought out the need in people to mingle where they could surround themselves with their own kind.

 

Chris Rawls ignored the Carnivale's clientele determinedly making the most of life and looked around for Sam Farrell. Club scenes were nothing new to him. In fact, they were all too old to him. He was occupied with thoughts of Alan Costello, hoping against hope it wasn't that kind man who'd ended up in his dumpster. Still, he couldn't miss seeing Detective Bayliss walk into the gay-club, take it in and break into a smile as if it were a big and glitzy amusement park brimming with unexpected thrills. The detective, even after he'd lost his earlier preoccupation, had been polite and business-like so far. But just then, watching the raucous party with avid eyes, high color on his cheeks, and that wide, bright, shiny smile, Tim Bayliss looked like a man who wanted to join in on all the reindeer games.

 

Maybe he was only waiting for an invitation.

 

Maybe I'm wishing too hard, Rawls told himself. It wasn't the time or the place anyway. For one, Pembleton kept a tight leash on his partner. For another, and more importantly, a human being had been murdered. If it turned out to be Alan, then not one but two men had had their lives taken from them; Sam just didn't know it yet. Chris Rawls intimately knew the pain of losing someone you loved for years and years, when the definition of loving owned one face, one body, one voice. It was not a wound that ever healed. Scabbed over, yes. Healed, never.

 

Sam couldn't have known Alan had brought a young hustler to dinner at the Zodiac last night, or he'd have called the restaurant first, before he'd risked compromising the secret of his lifestyle by contacting Missing Persons. Perhaps, like Rawls had preferred to do once, Sam Farrell didn't care to know how his lover spent his time outside of their home. Unlike Rawls, though, Sam had nothing to worry about; all Alan ever wanted to do with the street boys was to get them off the streets, warm them, feed them, even if only temporarily.

 

How unfair if Alan Costello had died so brutally just because he was a born father and couldn't let lost kids stay lost. Life wasn't fair, of course, least of all on the streets of Baltimore. "Where's Sam?" he squeezed through the crowd and asked the bartender. The man pointed him toward the back and Rawls called out to the detectives to follow.

 

If the body was Alan's, who else but Sam, the man who'd held and loved that body for years could possibly recognize it now? Of course, there was still a possibility the corpse belonged to somebody else.

***

 

Oh, dear God, it is Alan. Rawls knew it as soon as he saw Sam coming back down the corridor of the morgue, still in company of the two detectives who had escorted him into one of the rooms to view the body. Dead man walking after the execution.

 

But if he thought another second about what Sam was going through, he'd bolt, so he shouldn't think about it. If he let himself feel any deeper the mind-numbing horror of identifying the broken and bloody remains of -- no, dammit, don't think.

 

The cruelest grace of life, there were always the mundane practicalities. Someone had to think of them and he seemed to have volunteered. "I'm so sorry, Sam," he said, all the while knowing right then Farrell could hear nothing but himself, falling. A rushing wail, while you fell and fell and never stopped and wanted so badly to reach rock bottom and crash and shatter into pieces and make it stop hurting -- don't think! "Come on, Sam, let me take you home." He looked at the detectives, daring them to object.

 

"Sure," Bayliss told Farrell, quietly, "We know where to reach you," and his partner simply nodded.

 

"I just…just a minute, okay?" Farrell cast about, lost, "Where's…?"

 

Fastest on the uptake, Pembleton pointed out the door to the bathroom, which Farrell closed after himself, leaving the three men clustered together awkwardly in the hallway.

 

"You don't have to wait," Rawls told the others. The detectives he'd only this morning thought indifferent had obviously been working hard through the day and now it was into the evening. "I can call a cab and take Sam home. Your shift must be long over."

 

The partners shared another one of those consulting glances. Rawls knew which one would state his decision first and sure enough, "Tonight was going to be insufferable anyhow," Pembleton told Bayliss with a shrug, "I'll just suffer in a different way. You have anything you can't put off?"

 

"Yeah, I do. Finding Alan Costello's killer."

 

Rawls decided he owed Detectives Pembleton and Bayliss, especially Bayliss, a huge apology.

 

Pembleton looked as if he'd expected no other answer, excused himself, mumbling he'd better call Mary. His wife, probably.

 

Left alone with Rawls, Tim Bayliss shifted from foot to foot. "Think he's okay in there?" he asked, indicating the bathroom.

 

"No. I, for one, am willing to bet he's not okay in there." Grown people asking silly questions should learn to live with smart-ass answers.

 

"That's not what I -- I mean…" Was he actually blushing? "Should we check on him?"

 

Rawls was already regretting his retort. Both cops had been nothing but perfectly civil, and at the bar earlier, Bayliss had been decent enough to sit down to bring himself to Farrell's eye level and break the news kindly. "I shouldn't have said that, I'm sorry," he apologized. "I think we should just leave him alone to collect himself. Nothing we can do is going to make it better right now." He sighed and added, "Or worse." Nothing was worse. Being hacked apart from -- don't think about it! Think about something else, anything else. Is it raining outside? Do all morgues lack windows? Why does this gangly, somewhat clumsy man who looks ridiculously like a boy yet to grow into his body appeal to you so much? When are you going to grow old enough to learn that if wishes were horses….

 

"Farrell said they were together for twelve years." Bayliss interrupted his thoughts.

 

"Yeah."

 

"He called Costello his 'husband,'" one part question and three parts curiosity. "Is…is that…uh, customary?"

 

"They were exclusive, committed, and men. How else could he categorize it?" He looked at Bayliss' face that was struggling to stay expressionless. "Just a word that serves a purpose in an inadequate language, Detective, it does not necessarily define the sex roles between them."

 

Now Bayliss definitely blushed and denied immediately, "I wasn't asking about that."

 

"Yes, you were."

 

A deeper blush and, after a brief hesitation, the admission, "I guess I was, yeah."

 

Rawls decided he liked that warm hue on the man's skin, couldn't help wondering how he'd look flushed with sexual heat. "Some couples prefer set roles, but others practice more…equality, shall we say?"

 

"What about equality?" Pembleton asked, having just returned, making Bayliss, who hadn't seen him come back, jump.

 

"A concept my community invokes as often as yours," Rawls smoothed over the awkward moment. "Just making conversation. I think a good way of practicing it would be, do unto others no more or less than they want done."

 

While Pembleton considered that approach to equality in general and didn't seem to find it objectionable, Rawls was noticing one thing. Tim Bayliss had to be a decent detective. He'd recognized the clue he'd missed just that morning. He was skittish about it, but he wasn't missing it. "Anyway, I shouldn't keep you," Rawls said. "I'll take care of Sam. Please, just find the sick bastard before somebody else's loved one doesn't make it home."

***

 

It had come down to legwork, as usual. Talking to too many young men, quietly desperate or desperately flamboyant, on too many dark and damp street corners had netted a name: Peter Fields. Even though he remained elusive so far, there was no reason to attribute much brain power to the idiot who had left Costello's belongings and the heavy hammer which was probably the murder weapon easily locatable in his rooms. When he got greedy or hungry again, he'd start cruising his usual haunts. It was only a matter of waiting long enough.

 

The night shift was not one of the highlights of life in the Homicide Unit. And when it wasn't theirs, it had even less appeal. There were too many people in the squadroom who were neither total strangers nor true cohorts, but some ill-fitting group in between. Frank Pembleton liked to think of things as either his and nobody else's, or somebody else's and no business of his. Ballard's intrusion on his desk was bad enough, and while he understood having to share it with others on other shifts, he simply hated being there to watch it. He'd coaxed Tim into the break room. Somewhat neutral territory, except it made him hanker even more for caffeine. He kept repeating to himself the fast-aging litany: I will not have coffee -- today. Tomorrow, who knows? Maybe there should be a Caffeine-Compulsives Anonymous: Hi, I'm Frank and I crave rich, dark Colombian. Oh, yeah, talking about it would help a heap, wouldn't it? Now all he could think about was: And I just might have a cup. Okay, maybe not right now, but tomorrow. Yeah, tomorrow, definitely.

 

"You should go home, you know," Tim spoke up. "There's no guarantee Fields will show up at any of the stakeouts tonight."

 

"So why are you still sitting here?"

 

"You have a life." He lifted the Rubik's cube he'd been fiddling with. "I have a puzzle."

 

"Yeah, well, my life's gonna kill me if she catches me before she has a chance to sleep on it. I'll stick around here -- give me that thing."

 

Obediently, Bayliss handed it over. In two minutes flat, Pembleton handed it back. Bayliss was the methodical one, Pembleton preferred leaps of intuition. He was bored, so he threw one out, "That's your metaphor for the job."

 

Bayliss frowned at the all too square and solid object in his hand. "You mean like Brodie and his metaphors?"

 

"The water cooler, the mail cubicles, yeah, like that." He nodded at the cube, then pointed over his shoulder in the general direction of the interrogation room, "It's a box that holds a confounding puzzle. You can't rest until you solve it."

 

"Actually, Frank, no. This is my rest. A break from the puzzle that really confounds me," he reached and held the cube pointedly close to his partner's head, "constantly confronts me, confuses --"

 

"Aw, stop complaining," Pembleton waved, dismissive. "You love it, you thrive on it. You wouldn't have it any other way."

 

Bayliss sat back with a sigh. "You know, Frank, that's like saying the pig thrives on being eaten."

 

"Only if you're in a real deep funk. Even then, I'd say…" he considered, "oh, I'd say, it's like saying: wood has a talent for burning."

 

"Same difference."

 

"Not at all. Yours is self-pity. Mine's poetry."

 

"Can't help notice I end up consumed either way," Bayliss grumbled.

 

One of the late shift secretaries stuck her head around the corner, "Pembleton, Bayliss, for you."

 

They both moved, Bayliss' long stride taking him first to the nearest phone. He listened to the caller, mouthed, "Floss," at Frank, "Thank you, we'll be there shortly," he said into the receiver, dropped it to its cradle, and called out to the uniforms they'd kept on hold since returning from Fields' apartment, "We're cleared for take-off, let's go."

***

 

Many a time Tim Bayliss had come out of the box a loser. Some defeats had burrowed into him and set up housekeeping there forever. To start with, Risley Tucker, the squatter on by far the largest festering real estate of his failures. Partnered with the Master of the Box since day one, he was also used to being bested in it. It was a source of pride for Bayliss when, at first, he could hold his own, and later when he took over more and more often and Frank let him, a testimony in itself. Then there were all those wins, running the gamut from hard-won to windfall.

 

After six years he shouldn’t be coming out of the box unable to tell between win and loss.

 

He'd won, hadn't he? Peter Fields had confessed. For once, Pembleton had been invisible in the box. He, Tim Bayliss, had made Fields open that profane mouth he claimed men loved and confess to bashing in Alan Costello's brains, a man whose apparent fault had been a desire to help the lost youth of the streets. That and, oh yes, being gay. Bayliss had followed the same maxim that made Frank the best –when in the box do as the box demands—and played Fields' obscene game until he’d won.

 

As good a theory as any. Defensible.

 

Except from inside his skin. He knew that flush too slow to dissipate from his neck and breast and lower belly, the beads of moisture he could feel over his lip and the ones collecting into a slow drop to run down the middle of his chest. Too intent on getting the confession, he'd been careless, he'd let it get to him. It was one thing if once in a long while a vague outcast of a folly woke him to drying sweat and stained sheets, quite another letting it infect the job.

 

He must cool it off. Wash it off. Something, now, quickly. Before he had to think about it any further. Except his partner's back was squarely in his way. "Hey, Munch," Pembleton called across the squadroom. "We’re done, your turn."

 

"My turn?" Recalled from Section D of The Sun, John Munch looked around as if the answer was hovering in the air over his shoulder. "My turn for what?"

 

Bayliss rubbed his hands hard against each other, then against his pants. He'd frisked hundreds of men without giving it a single thought, so how come his palms now felt imprinted with the memory of the hustler's body? Just cause and effect, he told himself. The creep's words and his sick motives had caused his attention to be drawn, that was all. But what exactly had caused the creep's attention to be drawn to him? Pembleton, not the easiest person to ignore, had kept pushing himself into the man's face, yet the hustler wouldn't waver from his focus on Bayliss. Why? Christ, Frank, will you just get out of my way and let me find a breath of fresh air somewhere? He attempted to step around his partner.

 

Still talking to Munch, Pembleton reached back and stopped Bayliss from leaving by snagging his sleeve. "Fields confessed to Costello. He's all yours for Robson."

 

"What for? You've got a case of queer on queer. Robson got mugged and shot in an alley, no wallet, no ring, no watch on the body. Pure and simple."

 

"No," Bayliss suddenly found it necessary to correct the misconception. "Costello was the victim of a hate crime." He frowned down at Frank's hold. He so badly did not want to be touched right then. But this wasn't a touch, it was a leash.

 

Munch snorted. "You’re kidding, that little sweetheart's cookie doesn't crumble? I coulda sworn. I mean, didn't you take one look at him and think that boy can spin-dry you like a -- "

 

"Nobody thinks like you, John, spare us," Pembleton snapped . "For your information, Costello's wallet and watch were in Fields' possession, he's wanted for at least one other murder we know of, and men don't go into alleys only to get mugged."

 

"Those're usually found with their pants 'round their ankles and their unmentionables hangin' out."

 

Not if Peter Fields killed him, Bayliss knew with uncanny clarity, if Costello had begged for sex, he might still be alive. That homicidal maniac in there loves to feel superior to the ones who lust after his mouth, his young, firm body, his nice, hard ass. They're already his, he'll blow 'em or fuck 'em --heaven help me, he'll even confess murder to them. But he won't kill them.

 

Why negate them any further? They don't count. They're debased enough.

 

I need a shower.

 

Munch was folding away his paper hurriedly and rising. "Oh, all right, not like I've got another top tune. Might be worth a shot." Probably because Gee had chosen that moment to stop and glare at the board as he was returning from the break room. When their lieutenant saw red, it was safest to be seen hard at work at something. "Let me grab a coke first, gets dry in the box."

 

Was there a different temperate zone around him? Every breath he took felt like damp linen swaddling his throat. Had to be cooler on the roof. But why in hell was Frank still hanging on to him with less attention than he'd give to a stray coffee mug? Much less attention, in fact, if the mug actually held coffee.

 

The instant he pulled his sleeve loose and tried to go past his partner, though, Pembleton's attention spun on him like searchlight at prison break. "Where do you think you're going? Get back in there." Now he used his body to block Bayliss, pushed against him to keep him pinned in place.

 

"Huh?" He was no stranger to his partner's bouts of abrupt, deliberate physicality. When Pembleton got pushy, he often manhandled Bayliss as if he were an ungainly rag doll. But right then it made him feel dizzy.

 

"In there." As if to an imbecile. "Get back in there." Indicating with his head the door to the box. Which at that instant seemed the seventh circle of hell.

 

He tried to step back, came up against the side of the doorframe, edged and hard down his back, and also down his back, lukewarm and ticklish, his sweat. "He confessed, Frank, remember? You were there, he confessed, end of story." Let me go, he silently pleaded, not for the first time feeling chafed by Frank's nearness in too close a space. For the first time, though, afraid of it.

 

"He confessed to Costello."

 

"That's right, that was it, our case." Frank wasn't the biggest of men. Why did it always feel like there was just too much of him? "We're done, we're in black, I've done my bit, so let me go, okay?" Christ, he was practically begging.

 

Ever alert to fallibility, Frank heard it, of course. The way his nostrils flared and his tongue flicked over his bottom lip, he damn near tasted it. Suddenly Bayliss was terrified up this close Frank could smell it. Smell him. And know. Know.

 

"Come on, Tim, maybe twice a year John goes all out for a case. Robson isn't it, you know that. Rest of the time, he's plain lazy. Besides," with his fine, unerring cruelty toward weakness, Pembleton pitched his voice seductively low and cajoled, "the boy in there is yours. He's hooked." He rose on his toes so he was breath-close. Primed to let loose in the box only to be ignored, he was charged up. As it too often happened, Bayliss was the closest ground. "He'll just yawn in John's face. But you, he's getting off on the idea of getting to you, getting you hot." Underlined words, the way Frank liked to serve them, "He wants it so bad, turning you on, keeping you on, so bad he can taste it." On his full, mobile mouth the words had form, texture -- heat.

 

Like a blowtorch turned on an already blistering sunburn. Bayliss shoved at his partner to make him back up and give him some space . "What's the matter with you, Frank? The state's going to execute Fields for Costello. How many times does he have to die to suit you?"

 

"That's not the point. Who speaks for Robson?"

 

"Munch. It's his case, remember?"

 

"Been months, he hasn't had a thing to say yet."

 

Jesus, Pembleton hadn't known about the Robson case until Chris Rawls had brought it up -- twice, since Pembleton had promptly forgotten it. It wasn't fair, damn it. Bayliss leaned into Frank's face and hissed at him, "You know what, partner, you want Fields for Robson so much, go jack him off yourself."

 

"I would -- what, you think I wouldn't? But he hasn't got it for me," Pembleton patiently explained in his sweetest-reason tones. "He's got it bad and he's got it bad for you."

 

What was the use? In the guerrilla skirmish of their partnership, Frank always held the higher ground. He pulled back, took off his glasses, brushed his hand across his eyes, and nodded, "Yeah, all right, you're right. Okay, I'll go be his playmate." He squared his shoulders and found a smile, however tight-strung, "But you'd better still respect me in the morning."

 

Predictably, "What makes you presume I respect you now?" Just as predictably, a sharp turn on his heels and Frank walked away. He'd see no reason to waste breath on absolutes Bayliss must know: The only sin in Francis Pembleton's book, the killing that goes unpunished; the surest way of losing his respect, the inability to do one's job.

 

Bayliss wiped his glasses, put them back on. Now that he had some breathing space, it dawned on him that he and Frank had just spent long minutes in each other's faces, damn near plastered together, and nobody had paid them the slightest bit of attention. Come to think of it, nobody ever did. No cop liked intruding on a domestic in times of conflict or congress. To the squad, that's exactly what they had become. "Come on, John," he called out toward the break room. "Let's get to it before we have to put the moke on pension."

***

 

Pembleton watched through the one-way-window of the observation room as Bayliss and Munch entered the box and were immediately at odds with each other. John must think they should jointly persuade Fields two murders were no costlier than one and there was no reason not to tell the nice detectives all about it. Bayliss would know that strategy wouldn't work. Fields didn't care what he paid. As long as he first made some unwilling sucker pay. A perfect whore, really, his self-hatred so corrosive a substance that death or humiliation had become his price tag.

 

Munch sat down, frowned up at Bayliss whom he clearly thought was needlessly sucking up air in the box, shrugged him off and started the questioning himself. Pembleton knew Tim was pulling back to let Fields court him all over again. With any luck, the hustler would get distracted and careless.

 

Who'd have thought? Bayliss worked hard and tried harder, he was good, very good, but Pembleton had never expected this breakthrough from him. At first he'd thought Bayliss too naïve, too…well, vanilla…to realize he’s got a heart of darkness, never mind dare to reach into it, tear off a bloody piece and dangle it like bait when bait was called for. Then one late night on the pier he'd found out Tim was scarred too young and too deeply to go digging into his own guts.

 

When Fields had made the rules of his game clear and started in on Bayliss, Pembleton had tried his best condescending attitude. He'd thought being dismissive of the hustler was the only way they had left to get to that sick pride. He'd been flabbergasted as he'd watched Tim take the dare, internalize it, subordinate himself to it and offer it as ransom to that piece of slime. Many a man wouldn’t have had the courage. Fields had believed him. Hell, Pembleton had believed him.

 

He still believed him. Watching Tim circle the table as if lured into the orbit of its provocative center, watching him watch the hustler unblinkingly and with a preternatural quietude -- You’ve got it now, baby, you’ve finally got it and it’s poetry. Sheer poetry.

 

On the other hand, it was unexpectedly disturbing to see Fields preen under Tim's intense focus, watch the smug son-of-a-bitch bask under his imagined power over Tim Bayliss. He's the one with the power, you paltry idiot. It's not the kind of power that'll yield to the likes of you. It'll need matching and surpassing him, challenging him, compelling and taking him --

 

Whoa! Where had that come from? Frank Pembleton knew he could be intemperate at times, or get caught up in the theatricality of the box, but in the name of all the unsainted, that was a hell of a long way to take a pretext. That's all it was, a pretext, right? Just went to prove, didn't it? Tim Bayliss had become better than good.

 

So why did it suddenly feel like his partner had just done something unpardonable? Made the fake too real and switched the rules of the game -- on him? Putting one over on the bastards was one thing, blindsiding him was quite another.

 

Cut it out, I don't like it!

 

As if he'd heard, Bayliss obeyed. So abruptly did he shift his focus, call a halt to the interrogation and start walk out that Pembleton had to playback to himself the last few exchanges between Munch and Fields before his reason caught up. Bayliss hadn't been obeying or aggravating him, of course; what had possessed him to take it all so personally? The man had simply been working the case, working it well, and attentively enough to know when it was over and closed.

 

Life comfortably settled back into its normal groove and Frank Pembleton also put away the case, except for generously deciding to take care of the remaining details and give his partner some breathing room. Tim had had no choice but let his chains be yanked by that little creep; he'd earned a break or two.

 

"What's the matter with you?" Munch was calling across the squadroom after Bayliss as he slammed the door of the box closed behind him. "You do nothing but stalk about -- " He saw Pembleton come out of the observation room and turned on him, "You, I was sitting at my desk minding my own newspaper and you couldn't let me be. Your big oaf of a partner shambles around, totally useless, leaves me all by my lonesome to deal with Mr. Charming in there -- "

 

"John," Pembleton tried to cut in.

 

Munch wasn't listening, "Just when I'm about to get somewhere and the priapic prince looks ready to spill it all, your great lurking oracle snaps out of his stupor-- "

 

"John -- "

 

"Says, 'Forget it, he didn't do it,' pronounces it all a waste of time and walks out on me. "

 

"John!"

 

"What!"

 

"He didn't do it."

 

"Not you, too. Didn't you hear? He was about to confess."

 

"Yeah, I heard. You're right, he was about to confess. But he didn't do it. He was pumping you for information so he could dress up his confession."

 

"Then why should he confess? What for?""

 

"Because he's a cock tease."

 

"What!?"

 

"Never mind. Take my word for it, he didn't do it."

 

"Oh, right, what was I thinking? Even in Sanskrit it doesn't make sense, but if Great Pembleton says so it must be true. Once more mere mortals stand astounded. You know something, you and Bayliss deserve each other. What esoteric weirdness has partnered together, let no cop with an ounce of reason come in between. Woe to those…"

 

Pembleton left Munch grousing and went after his partner, found him in the bathroom, washing his hands with the collective zeal of half-a-dozen surgeons. "Getting ready to take Fields to booking."

 

Tim kept scrubbing his hands raw. "Okay."

 

"I'll take him, you don't need to come."

 

"Okay."

 

"Tim?"

 

"Yeah?"

 

"All the years I've been on this beat, I've seen my share of homicide cops come through door 203 for the first time." He paused long enough that Bayliss was forced to meet his eyes. "You turned out to be best to walk in through that door."

 

Bayliss looked dumb-struck, opened his mouth but nothing came out. He only blinked. And kept blinking.

 

"Just thought you should know," Frank added with as solemn a nod as felt right for the occasion and watched an astonished smile finally break through and light up his partner's face. Enough said, he spun on his heels and left. He wondered when Bayliss would remember to turn off the faucet.

***

 

Thames Street, which the locals insisted on pronouncing 'tames,' teemed with two diverse groups, one determinedly ignoring the other, the other doing its damnedest to be impossible to ignore. Rawls was about to despair of finding close-by parking when someone obligingly pulled out of a spot facing the storefront art gallery directly across from the police station. He grabbed the space and parked his car, wondering why Act-Up was still filling the street in force. He'd first heard the news that Alan's killer had confessed and was in custody through Detective Pembleton's courtesy call he'd taken at Sam's house where he'd spent the night. On his way over, he'd heard it on the radio as well.

 

He got out of his car, thinking that perhaps the morgue would be the place to ask how to go about reclaiming Alan's body, then shook his head at himself. Who was he kidding? If he'd only wanted to save Sam the procedural details, he could have simply picked up the phone. He'd paid too many dues for the privilege of living his life honestly to start lying to himself at this late date. He should admit he wanted an excuse to see Tim Bayliss and test the waters one last time.

 

On his way across the street, he was recognized and greeted by a handful of people and stopped by one. "Hi, Chris, did you forget your placard at home? Wanna borrow mine?" asked the young man with an athlete's physique and a cherub's face, Bobby Anderson, who worked at Lambda Rising during the day and wrote articles for the more militant gay publications at night. Then he smiled his angelic smile and answered himself, "No, not your style, I know. But I keep hoping," investing the last bit with the same innuendo he hadn't tired of trying every time their paths crossed.

 

Rawls smiled back only politely, as usual. He indicated the crowd questioningly. "You did hear, didn't you, the killer is already in custody?"

 

"Yeah. Fast work, wouldn't you say? A little too fast? Too convenient?"

 

"Meaning?"

 

"Meaning we'd like to make sure they're not simply railroading one of us. Easy target, you know. Besides, what about Phil Robson?"

 

"I don't know about the Robson investigation, but I was in the middle of Alan's. If they were all handled as well you could throw away your placards."

 

"Yeah? Well, maybe miracles do happen, but we'll just wait and see."

 

With a nod Rawls granted, not the point, only his acceptance that he wasn't going to change anybody's mind. He started to walk away but Anderson grabbed his arm and leaned close enough for his blonde curls to brush Rawls' cheek. "Anytime you really want me to believe in miracles, you can."

 

He shook off the hold, but stayed close so he could say his piece without advertising it unnecessarily, "I don’t do boys, Bobby, much less boys with an agenda." It was common knowledge Anderson had a habit of outing his conquests. "There's no pay-off in it for you, either, I've been out as long as you've been alive."

 

"Who needs an agenda for you? Did you ever look in a mirror?"

 

"Yeah, and I'd like to keep looking in it with good conscience. Excuse me." He headed for the stairs to the station.

 

"Never mind conscience," a non-believer in non-advertising, Anderson called out after him, "where's your anger, Chris? Don't you take enough flak? Aren't you tired of taking it for the closet cases who won't come out and take their own?"

 

Rawls ignored him. Half a dozen cops, most in uniform, were clustered at the blue-and-white door to the station. All except one were keeping carefully professional faces. A perverse impulse made Rawls choose the one scowling furiously, a short, running-to-fat, middle-aged man in a rumpled suit and a stained tie. "Would you direct me to the Homicide Unit, please?"

 

Grudgingly, "Who're you looking for?" He sounded as if he'd been inhaling helium. The high voice coupled to his bristling bantam rooster look was rather amusing.

 

"Detective Tim Bayliss," Rawls thought it safe to answer. He was legitimately involved with a case.

 

"Why am I not surprised?" was mumbled into the Daily Grind coffee cup the man lifted to his mouth, "Second floor, right."

 

"Thank you," Rawls said with an impeccably polite nod, and went through the cheerily painted doors of the brick behemoth.

 

Another set of stairs greeted him, long and impressive enough to lead to a Mayan Temple, topped by, instead, a large sign proclaiming: Criminal Investigations Division. Once he climbed, a little surprised and a lot pleased at being only slightly winded, turning to the right brought him to the door to Homicide, to find a cavernous, cluttered place inside. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the way the low-budget office furnishings were crammed in, and when he paused, lost, a black-granite mountain of a man asked his business in a mighty-oracle voice and directed him to the right desk.

 

When he saw Rawls coming, Bayliss quickly swept away some papers and photos into a drawer, rose to shake hands, moving as if suddenly at odds with his long limbs. "Mr. Rawls, hi…uh," he smiled uncertainly, adding to his flustered look. "Hi."

 

"Chris. I hope I'm not interrupting."

 

"No, no, it's fine. Please," he indicated the chair on the side of his desk and sat back down. "How's…uh --" for an instant he couldn't locate the name, making Rawls wonder how fast Homicide detectives disassociated themselves from their completed cases, " -- Sam?"

 

"It was a rough night, but he's going to manage. Getting your partner's call early this morning helped, gave him some peace. He pulled himself together so he could go pick up their daughter, she's flying back from college. For her sake, he'll cope."

 

"They have a daughter?"

 

"Well, biologically she is Alan's, but Sam helped raise her since she was very young. She's eighteen, and I think Alan said he got his divorce and her custody in eighty-six." He answered Bayliss' unspoken question, "Yes, Alan was married. It sometimes takes men a long time to know who they really are."

 

"And longer to accept it?" Bayliss said almost too quietly to hear. Posed as a question, it was nevertheless a statement.

 

"Some never do."

 

"Yeah."

 

Following Bayliss' example, he'd pitched his voice low, too, and he realized it was giving them an air of intimacy. Not the place for it, especially since the glowering man he'd approached outside was now sitting a few desks down and paying undue attention. He changed the subject. "I'd like to help out Sam, if possible. Can you tell me what should be done to get the morgue to release Alan?"

 

"Just choose a funeral home, they'll know what to do. Once they have permission signed by the next of kin, they'll take care of everything."

 

Considering Sam's need for secrecy, Rawls doubted the two men had drawn up notarized provisions. Good thing their daughter was eighteen, or Sam may now be unable to make any decisions about his lover's burial. Years of devotion and no rights. Another reality Rawls was familiar with. It was also another worn track he should immediately get off of. He changed the subject again. "I'd appreciate the opportunity to thank you," that was too obvious, so he quickly added, "and your partner. May I invite you to dinner at the Zodiac? "

 

"Thank you, but…well, Frank, you see, goin' out to dinner, he'll want to take Mary, that's his wife, and, uh, well…"

 

"The atmosphere may not be suitable, I understand," Rawls rescued him. "How about you?" Which was, after all, the point. "We have one of the best wine lists in Baltimore -- I mean, if you drink French reds." He left it hanging as a question.

 

A short pause, "Yeah, I've been know to," a quick look around, "drink some…" a shorter pause, "…reds."

 

Oh, really? "Yeah?"

 

"Yeah."

 

Well, well. "The offer's open." Okay then, no need to keep cajoling a horse already willing to drink. He rose to leave.

 

"How about tonight?"

 

Whoa, that had been too abrupt to be motivated by anything but fear of losing nerve. "Tonight, sure, that'd be great."

 

"Great. Okay. Yeah."

 

Oh, dear, Rawls realized, he's trying to talk himself into it after the fact.

 

Trying too hard to sound casual, Bayliss asked, "What time tonight?"

 

"Eight o'clock?"

 

"Eight o'clock, great, all right." With a tremulous smile, he reached out and shook hands, "I'll be there, okay," looking for all the world like a school boy honor-bound to hold up his end of a rash bargain.

 

And Rawls knew, without a single doubt, that Tim Bayliss may have wondered about drinking reds, but he had yet to taste any.

 

On his way out, he ran into Detective Pembleton, who greeted him amiably in passing. He wondered if Tim would tell his partner about his dinner date. Were they only professional partners, or did they share aspects of their personal lives, too?

***

 

Tim Bayliss parked his jeep around the corner from Zodiac, found himself adjusting his tie and smoothing his hair in the rearview mirror. What kind of dinner, Frank had asked, like a date dinner? I don't know, he'd answered, and he still didn't, but he was checking out his appearance. Something he didn't ever remember doing in preparation to meeting another guy before.

 

Frank had also warned, I don't think he's expecting what you're expecting. Behind it, of course, had been Frank's own expectations of Tim he didn't seem willing to let be compromised. This from the same man who had often accused Bayliss of homophobia. Obviously, intellectual liberalism was one thing, his partner going out to dinner with a gay man a whole different thing. Did he realize that was the exact equivalent of: I'm not bigoted toward blacks, I just don't want my daughter to date one?

 

Francis Pembleton, as fallible as the next man after all.

 

What about Timothy Bayliss, what was he expecting? Maybe nothing. Maybe just to understand, finally, why he had been a good basketball player and an even better swimmer, only to run away from both sports. They had filled his days of raging hormones with clean energy and camaraderie -- and deranged his nights with disjointed images of sweaty-hot or sleek-wet male bodies. Women turned him on without half-trying, he found exquisite pleasure with them, true. He could still remember spying his first nude girl, led on by a much more precocious Jim, at the age of twelve and the excitement she'd roused in him. But he could also remember his relief, bordering on gratitude, for the total lack of maleness at the join of her legs. Had he firmly decided then and there that he liked girls, period, because she'd been stirringly feminine, or safely non-masculine?

 

Did he really want to know? At this late date?

 

Well, at this late date, he was still alone and, as he'd told Frank, still unhappy. What did he have to lose? He glanced at the mirror one last time. Perhaps he should've dressed more casually, shouldn't have worn a tie, since he had yet to see Chris wear one -- dammit, now he was sweating the details. Enough already, he admonished himself, got out of the jeep and went around the corner, took a deep breath, and entered the restaurant.

 

Chris Rawls wasn't wearing a tie tonight, either, but he had dressed in a well-tailored brown suit over a soft-wool black turtleneck. He approached with an openly delighted smile, making Bayliss realize he couldn't remember the last time anybody had greeted his arrival with delight, except maybe Olivia. He smiled back, suddenly feeling good about himself with or without a tie, reached to shake hands. "Hi. Sorry, I'm a little early."

 

"Hi. Don't be sorry, I'm a lot pleased."

 

The slender young woman he'd met the previous morning approached them and, as if they were both customers, asked, a little too theatrically, "Would you two gentlemen like to have a drink at the bar first, or are you ready for your table?"

 

"Noreen," Rawls said from between clenched teeth, drawing out the last syllable warningly.

 

"Or maybe you'd like to be alone." She gave Bayliss an appraising look, "How nice to see you again, Detective," damn near winked at him and swayed away.

 

Rawls shook his head. "Do you have sisters?"

 

"Yes, one."

 

"I don't. Or I'd have known better than hiring Noreen." He led the way to a table.

 

Bayliss took off his coat, which a busboy rushed to take, sat down and looked around. "Nice place you got here." Damn. One thing for sure, dating in his own gender hadn't magically improved him in the originality department.

 

"Thank you, but the bank owns most of it."

 

"You, too?" He answered Chris' questioning look, "I'm part owner in a bar, Waterfront. You may have seen it, it's right across from the Department."

 

"Some nice old buildings there."

 

"Pretty, yes, but don't ask what it takes to keep the plumbing going." A waiter arrived with a bottle of wine, poured it and took their orders. "So," Bayliss said once the young man had left, "you believe in astrology." Just making small talk.

 

"Hmh?" Rawls looked puzzled. "No, why – oh, Zodiac. No, you see, it predates me. The restaurant was already here when I bought the building. I had to change the fare. It used to be a new-age type of place. What did I know from things like tubers and curd, legume and sorghum? I left the name alone. Too much change alienates people."

 

Bayliss couldn't help thinking of Frank, "Tell me about it. You don't look all that Italian, though." And again, there was Frank in his mind's eye, giving him his frequent you-are-a-waste-of-time look. "Sorry, I should know better. You saw my boss today, didn't you? If he can be Sicilian, you can certainly be Italian."

 

"Only half, except for my palate." He smiled and explained, "My father was Polish and my mother was Italian. She cooked, he didn't, so my taste buds grew up one hundred percent Italian."

 

"Your parents, they're…?" Ignoring the use of past tense would be rude, wouldn't it?

 

"Dead?" Rawls smiled again, but now it was brittle. "To the Census Bureau, I don't know. To me, yes."

 

Oh. Bayliss didn't know what to say or how he'd get it past the foot in his mouth.

 

"Don't worry about it, please." Rawls seemed to consider the awkward moment his fault. "It was a long time ago." He reached as if to pat Bayliss' hand, seemed to think better of it and didn't touch.

 

Long time ago. That was no guarantee something was forgotten or had become painless. If anybody knew that, Timothy Bayliss did. He reached across the table to cover Rawls' hand, gave the apology he felt he –or if not he, somebody-- owed. "I’m sorry," he squeezed the warm hand under his palm firmly. "For your loss. And theirs."

 

A soft little startled smile on his full lips, Rawls looked at him with liquid-moss eyes fringed with impossibly long, dark lashes and it suddenly dawned on Bayliss that the man sitting across the table from him was beautiful. He must've been breathtaking in his youth. Now he must be close to forty, a little older than Tim, marked with lines of maturity, but still, no other word for it, beautiful.

 

It also dawned on Bayliss that suddenly he was contemplating the beauty of a man. Quite a change for him, wasn't it? Or was it?

***

 

Frank Pembleton didn't much like change. In fact, if he didn't employ his intellect over both the necessity and the inevitability of it, it downright terrified him. It had been one of the few things, maybe the first thing that had made Bayliss lose all patience with him: You've turned the miracle of life into a decorating problem, get out of my face.

 

He'd been young during the first upheaval of his life. He wasn't sure if his memories of it were his own or fashioned from retellings. For the longest time he'd kept thinking he remembered his mother and father very well. Not until he was an adult himself he'd realized that most of their images he'd thought he owned were time-frozen on his grandmother's photographs. Including the one in front of the car that had killed them on the Brooklyn Bridge. It wasn't until he'd been imprisoned inside his own mind after the stoke that he'd also realized why the remnant of a silly cartoon from his childhood had movement and sound but his parents were still and silent for him. He'd never had much of an opportunity to share his older siblings' memories. He'd stayed with his grandmother while his brother had gone to live with an uncle upstate, and his sister with an aunt on his mother's side in Atlanta. But for name and blood, they hadn't been siblings for over three decades.

 

You see, Tim, a decorating problem, I can handle. He was handling it. There wasn't a single foot of space on his living room floor that didn't contain something he'd prefer not to house but, he had accepted, an eighteen-month-old couldn't live without. And damn Tim Bayliss, for nearly half the clutter had been carried in through the Pembleton door attached to his rangy frame. Big mistake, inviting him over around Christmas.

 

He put the local paper down. City council politics made even poorer reading backed by the animal yowls some contraption made every time Livvy pulled its string. He cast a jaundiced eye on the noisy thing his daughter seemed enamored of, but no, Tim couldn't be that cruel to him, it had Whelan written all over it. Sliding to the floor, he tried to distract Livvy. Offering other toys got him ignored. Peek-a-boo didn't work, it never did for him. Maybe tactile play?

 

Livvy cooperated for a minute, dimpled with smiles when he blew into her tummy, then toddled off in search of other amusement. He'd seen Tim do that for endless minutes, damn it, and his daughter would twitter and giggle, grab fistfuls of his hair and wrap around him so Tim could gently toss his head and make her squeal and finally break into peals of laughter.

 

He rolled onto his back on the carpet and grumbled, "Maybe I should grow my hair."

 

"What was that?" Mary asked, coming back from the kitchen with a cup of cocoa.

 

"I'm trying to figure out why she thinks Tim's better company than I am."

 

Mary sat on the couch, tucked up her legs, "Oh, I don't know," looked down at her daughter and smiled, "If she were a gosling, I'd say it was all that early imprinting." She picked up the newspaper he'd abandoned.

 

"What imprinting?" But she'd already found something of more interest in the paper. "Mary? What 'early imprinting'?"

 

"After your stroke," she absent-mindedly informed somebody's article.

 

He sat up. "Ma-ry?"

 

"What?"

 

"You tell me what."

 

"Oh." She pursed her lips, put down the paper and looked at him for a minute before speaking. "Okay, I will." Reaching, she picked up her mug, cradled it between her palms as if to warm them. "You had a stroke. I had a two-week-old baby and a husband in a coma. You woke up with eighty-five-percent paralysis. For months, I was at the hospital through your every meal, every bath, every therapy session. The earliest day care starts at six weeks. Didn't you ever wonder what I did with Olivia?"

 

"Of course I did, I asked, and you said -- "

 

"I said, 'She's fine, you concentrate on yourself,' and that's all you ever asked. You never asked how I coped, if I needed help. Tim did."

 

"You told me your mother was here!"

 

"She was, much later. I didn't tell them right away. I wasn't ready to hear how dire my straits were."

 

"Tim took care of Livvy?"

 

"He used up his vacation time, then talked Gee into loaning him to Megan's shift. During the day he was either here or alternating with me at the hospital. He used to take her to the chapel so she could sleep undisturbed."

 

His own brother had only managed to scribble his name to a get-well card. His sister hadn't even done that much. In fairness, though, she probably hadn't heard. "Why didn't you ever tell me? Why didn't he?"

 

"It's never easy to tell you of a kindness you don't take as an affront, Frank. At the time, it was impossible. We didn't decide not to tell you. Just that, we know you. Don't let on to Tim now, either, you'll only make him uncomfortable." She picked up the paper again. "He's going to make a good father one day. Soon, I hope."

 

"Yeah, well," he mumbled. He didn't feel like telling Mary, considering whom Bayliss was seeing tonight, fatherhood was not likely to be an issue anytime too soon.

 

She went back to reading, adding as an afterthought, "I wish he wasn't so alone. He looks sadder by the day."

 

He did? Tim looked sadder by the day to Mary? I haven't been happy for a long time, he'd just that day told Frank. No, actually what he'd said was: I don't know if you've noticed this, Frank, but I haven't been happy for a long time.

 

In all honesty, Frank Pembleton, detector of many a truth, had never noticed.

 

Had he noticed, Chris-I-like-your-tie-Rawls? Was he busy noticing it right now?

 

Whirrr -- "YOWL, yip, yip, YOWL!" went the toy Livvy had rediscovered.

 

If it had had a neck, Frank would have wrung it.

***

 

Detective Bayliss of Baltimore City PD, CID, was telling stories of his tribe. This one involved somebody with the unlikely name of Munch and…Santa's son? Well, it was a Christmas story. Had to be tough for a Homicide cop to distill appropriate dinner conversation from his experiences on the job.

 

Rawls had what he called one of his cross-threaded feelings at the pit of his stomach. A soft and bright dread. He'd started this thing on an impulse. It had been trivial to him. Later, he'd found himself attracted, intrigued, interested, but still, from a safe perspective -- until Tim Bayliss had squeezed his hand and tendered an apology, unowed and unadorned, a little stilted even. In that singular moment of clumsy eloquence, Chris Rawls had realized if he wasn't really careful he could get seriously lost.

 

"Sure, we could've been the biggest chumps in the history of the squad," Tim was now expounding on an impromptu wedding, "but how can you take the chance? I mean, imagine we'd done nothing and Lewis shows up with his family, his bride on his arm, and all he's got to show for his faith in his friends is an empty hall?"

 

He’s beautiful and he doesn’t know it, Rawls thought, watching Bayliss lit by the animation of the story he was telling and flushed with the wine, he’s also lonely, knows it, but doesn’t know what to do about it – and I should’ve left him the hell alone. Whether I read him right or wrong at the Carnivale, this can bring nothing but trouble.

 

Somebody's sister from Italy almost became the subject, got quickly discarded in favor of the somebody herself, "Kay Howard, the best -- " Bayliss told him, seemed to think better of it, " -- well, one of the best murder police I know. The other's Frank, of course," he loyally amended, mentioning his own partner for the first time and sounding proprietary about him, then regretted the fact that Howard was refusing to obey her calling and come back to Homicide. Because, Bayliss said he suspected, Fugitive Squad gave her a wider scope and better mobility to track down her partner’s killers.

 

Happy or sad or funny, stories about the ties that bind. The problem was, Chris Rawls had heard them before. From a friend and a closeted cop in New York's 31st Precinct. "Cop is a plural noun," Rick Newhouse had been fond of saying, with the same sure pride Bayliss' earnest face now wore. The moment his closet door had cracked open, the ones that gave the noun its plurality had failed to show up to cover his back. They'd been no-shows at his funeral, too. They'd had to show up at the trial when their culpability had been exposed. But twelve men and women, good and true, had promptly acquitted them.

 

What do you think you’re doing, Rawls berated himself, he’s a cop for crying out loud. He doesn’t have to go a single step further than sitting here and having a companionable dinner with you to get stigmatized. What the fuck do you think you’re doing? He's a nice guy, so have the decency to send him home and discourage him from coming back.

 

Okay, pretty man, one more for the road, and off you go, he picked up the wine bottle to refill Bayliss' glass. I'll probably regret you anyway. It might as well be sooner than later.

 

"No." Bayliss cupped his palm over the glass, causing a few drops to spill on his hand before Rawls could right the bottle. Instead of using his napkin, he brought his hand to his mouth and licked it, no calculation in it, as inelegantly as a boy licking an ice cream cone.

 

How old are you, Rawls despaired, and do you have any idea what you're doing to me?

 

"I shouldn't have had the last one. Or the last two," Bayliss was explaining, oblivious, "This is great, you're great, but I did three shifts in a row. Got only a few hours' break this morning. Your fantastic wine did in all the caffeine that was holding me up. I should go home before I fall on my face -- oh, damn it, I drove. What was I thinking?"

 

"Let me call you a cab. I'll have someone deliver your car tomorrow, or -- " What do you mean ‘or,’ you hypocrite, when you’re supposed to be sending him away? He's a detective, not a street cop, Rawls argued with himself, surely he's not in that much danger. "Or you can use the guest room upstairs."

 

"You have rooms upstairs? Our bar does, too. It used to be a hotel back when. It needs renovation, but we don't have the money."

 

"Mine's an apartment, not a hotel. I live upstairs. The guest room is just that, though. The guest's, alone."

 

Bayliss smiled, low-wattage, but lazy and self-pleased. "I wasn’t worried." A little high and clearly a bit reckless with it, he leaned closer and growled in jest, "I'm bigger than you."

 

More charmed than goaded, Rawls' devil took over, too. "That remains to be seen."

 

Bayliss blushed but continued gamely, "I've got a gun."

 

"Oh, that’s what you call it."

 

"It doesn't come by calling."

 

"How does it -- no, don't answer." Banter was about to take a sharp left into swampland. "Whatever you answer, I'm liable to say, 'I can do that.' Suddenly you're stuck with accepting or rejecting me. We had one nice dinner. You want to complicate it already?"

 

"No," Bayliss conceded soberly. "But…I think…I think I want to at least think about it." He got up, pushed his chair back in. "Is that all right?"

 

"You have no idea. Let's leave it there for now and let me drive you home. You can pick up your car tomorrow."

 

"No, I need my car in the morning. There was something I was supposed to do today, I forgot. I'll have to get to it first thing. If I walk around a bit it'll clear my head enough to drive." He seemed to hesitate, then tilted his head and asked, "Will you, uh, walk with me? I mean, cold and all that, I know -- you'd mind? Walking with me, I mean. But yeah, it's cold, and it's late, so -- "

 

Rawls was on his feet before he was aware of his total willingness to walk the whole length of Charm City if that was Bayliss' tongue-tied pleasure. "Give me a minute to get my coat." All too apparently, any regrets bound to come due, he had put on deferred payment plan.

 

Outside, mist blanketed the pavements and made the narrow buildings of Read look insubstantial. There was an expectation of snow in the damp air. Under the hazy ring of a lamppost, Bayliss stuck his hands into his pockets, closed his eyes, threw back his head as if scenting the air, took a series of long, deep breaths. Rawls shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his own coat, or he was going reach out and stroke that lovely throat, run his fingers over its elongated lines, seek out the warmth hiding in the nape under the fall of fine, dark hair --

 

" Do you know where I can find an all-night hardware store? I need to pick up a plunger. "

 

Ouch. That was a resounding thud back to earth. "Grocery stores carry them, don't they? There's a 24-hour Safeway up the road."

 

"No, not that kind of plunger." They started walking. "The pump with the ball, inside the tank."

 

All kinds of double entendres going to waste, but Rawls let them go. "If you say so. I don't really know what's inside the tank."

 

"You're kidding." They rounded the corner to the side street.

 

"No, I'm not. I don't change tires or fuses, I don't own power tools, and I see no reason at all to lift the hood of a car."

 

Bayliss gaped at him.

 

Suddenly Rawls was feeling the way he had long ago promised himself to never let anybody make him feel. "You know, mechanics, plumbers, electricians, all those, they exist for a very good reason. I can afford to pay them to do their jobs. Past that, what have I got to lose, my macho trappings?" He started to shrug and once he had his shoulders up he kept them there; it was cold. "I get and I give pleasure in the arms of men. My masculinity is already considered defective."

 

Bayliss started to say something but Rawls found himself in no mood to hear polite noise. "And it's only that, you know. Nothing but that. If you think about it, it's okay for a man to have close ties with other men: team work, male bonding. It's fine if a man loves or takes care of another man. 'He's not heavy, he's my brother.' Or dies for a man. 'No greater love,' right? But sex, oh, that big bad word. You're not married --" It suddenly dawned on him to ask, "Or are you?"

 

"Of course not! What would I be doing here if I was married?"

 

"You’d be surprised." Bayliss couldn't be that naïve, could he? But those eyes looked so damned earnest. "Anyway, you're not married. Were you?"

 

"Nope."

 

"Come close?"

 

"Not by a country mile."

 

"Live-in lovers, long term affairs?"

 

With a self-deprecating smile, "Only if I was a fruit fly."

 

"Right, and you're devoted to an intense, male-dominated job. Chances are, the people you best and most love are men. But put your arms around one, put your mouth on his and you don't even have to go any further -- congratulations, you're now a subspecies. A substandard species."

 

"What, like this?" Suddenly, Tim's arms had wrapped around his shoulders and, with no more than that brief warning, there, on the quiet side street, swallowed by the mist and night, Tim Bayliss kissed him. Awkward as all new learning, but singular, focused, tasting of wine and capers, rich and heady and perfect.

 

Heaven help me, Tim Bayliss, I like your mouth. Oh, Christ, as he was bent further back, I think you like mine, too.

 

He tried not to push, tried to let Tim learn at his own pace: take your time, take mine --

 

Then Tim moaned, a plaintive, needy sound that poured from the depths of his throat straight into Chris' blood. He fit his palms around Tim's face, sank his fingers into the cool-silk of his hair and let his sudden hunger feed on the perfect, moist mouth. He moaned, too, feeling the arms around him tighten, the long body against his press close -- another minute of this and he was going lose all brakes.

 

He pulled away, because somebody had to. Too fast, too soon. Too unconsidered.

 

But it ached to pull away, especially when Bayliss tried to pull him back.

 

"God, Tim…." Rawls had to put his arm between them, a slant of avoidance. "Think of what you're getting into."

 

"Chris?" A rough whisper, making a stunned plea of his name.

 

"No, wait -- " So now you know sometimes life pulses harder than custom. But I know that way lies the minefield. "Right now, every fiber I've got wants to tell you to think fast, be done, and let's go for it. But that's just the heat of the moment. If this a brief trip to the wilder side of the street for you, then that's fine, except I wish you'd find a partner more interested in a one-night-stand. If it's more that that -- look, I knew a cop once, he lived and breathed blue. Blue and pink didn't mix well, he's dead now. Please, Tim, think carefully before you decide you can afford me."

 

"I'm not a child, I can take care of myself." Contrarily, he sounded exactly like a child, a thwarted one.

 

"You don't get it. You see, unless you're real sure, I can't afford you." Maybe he'd still like to believe in all for love and love for all, although that belief had damn near destroyed him once. But he certainly couldn't justify all for lust, however immediate that lust. "Please understand, I don't want to hurt you, but I don't want to be hurt, either. So, come on, let's give each other some room, okay?"

 

Bayliss drew in a frustrated breath and let out a resigned one. "Okay." But then he smiled and asked, "Walk me to my car?"

 

"Sure."

 

After a few steps, "Chris?"

 

"Yeah?"

 

"I liked it. Kissing you."

 

"I noticed. Surprised?"

 

"Yes -- no -- I don’t know. But I know one thing."

 

"What's that?"

 

"I don't feel substandard." As if in proof, Bayliss' hand enfolded his. Only until they came around the corner to the main street. But still.

 

This could be heaven, or it could be hell, Rawls thought, I wonder if I'll be able to tell the difference.

***

 

Damn Gee.

 

Damn him, and his uncanny ability of knowing where trouble was about to erupt and appearing on the spot with a smile on his face and God's own prohibition in his eyes. Gharty had looked like he'd take the dare and, oh, how Pembleton had hoped he would. No joy in Mudsville today, though. He should go back to his desk and attack a report instead.

 

Who did Stu Gharty think he was? Whichever mentally deficient brass had come up with the idea of rotations should be drawn and quartered in the square in front of Jimmy's. Time was, before every simpleton with a badge had started rolling through Homicide, he could've vouched for every member of his shift, including Beau Felton. With all his many faults, even that redneck from Pig Town had had a cop's honor, and certainly more balls than Stu Gharty could find among the lot of his inbred clan. How dare the coward who'd sat in his car rattling to his bones with fear while two children had killed each other disparage Tim's manhood?

 

How did Gharty know about it anyway? Bayliss had shared one dinner --and nothing else, so he'd said-- with Chris Rawls only last night. Rawls did not have any affectations or mannerisms that advertised his homosexuality. Nobody standing around the squadroom could know he was gay even if the dinner invitation was overheard. Had somebody heard Tim and Frank later, when they were discussing it in the break room? Or this morning, in the garage?

 

Or something worse? Pembleton wondered about it as he approached his desk. His partner was there, going through papers, probably looking for Fields' booking form to attach to the prosecution report. Could there be something more sinister to Gharty's knowledge of Tim's activities? The weasel still had buddies in the IID and IID had eyes everywhere. Was Internal looking at Tim for some imbecilic reason? Christ, Tim, the most honest, decent man in the whole --

 

Right then, that most honest and decent man whirled around and snarled into his face, "You take the cake, you know that? What the fuck is this, Frank?"

 

Huh? He had to lean back to be able to focus on the sheet Bayliss stuck two inches in front of his nose. "It's the background check on Rawls, so what?"

 

"You couldn't leave it alone, could you? What's the excuse this time? Same as last? You can't help it, you detect?"

 

"What's your prob -- oh, I see." His partner did have a tendency to fly off the handle. "Why don't you turn it around and take a good look at it?"

 

Instead, Bayliss slammed the sheet face down on Pembleton's desk. "I don't need to look at it. I wouldn't sink to snooping on a friend. If there's anything in there I need to know, I'm sure Chris will tell me. I trust my friends. Trust, Frank, you should try it sometime."

 

All too often Tim sounded like a character in a Frank Capra movie -- if Frank Capra had made movies when he was twelve. "You know, Tim, you're a cop, act like one. Look at the evidence first. Do your background check."

 

"Yeah? Let me tell you, Frank, if I paid attention to background checks, we wouldn't've been partners at all. The background check on you, in this squadroom, among your nearest and dearest colleagues, not to put too fine a point on it," he leaned close enough to almost touch noses, "sucked." He pulled back and repeated, "It sucked, Frank. Come to think of it, it still sucks." He stalked off.

 

Oh, Tim was going to be sorry for that. He picked up the sheet, but his partner, back at his own desk, had picked up his phone in the meantime. Frank Pembleton sat down to bide his time.

~~~

"I wanted to thank you for last night," Bayliss said when whoever had answered at the Zodiac called Rawls to the phone, "I had a good time."

 

"I did, too. Anytime you want to come back -- "

 

"It's my turn. Nice as it is, Zodiac is your workplace. Let me take you out to dinner."

 

"As long as you don't praise another restaurant's sauce over mine," Rawls chuckled, "at least not in my hearing, sure, love to, when?"

 

"Tonight’s too short a notice?" He suddenly realized how short a notice, someone from the next shift was already turning over the board.

 

"Not at all," was Chris' reply, though.

 

"Great. Let’s sidestep the sauce issue and try seafood. Bertha's, around seven?" Just enough time to finish the report, stop by the house to shower, shave, and change. Then he noticed the hesitation at the other end of the line. As usual, his mouth was running ahead of his brain. He lived two blocks up, but Chris would have to drive across town. "We can make it eight. Later, if you prefer."

 

"No, the time is fine, but --Bertha's? That's -- "

 

"Broadway and Lancaster at -- "

 

"At Fells Point, yes, I know. You want to have dinner with me at Bertha's? Why?"

 

"Why?" Wasn't that obvious? "I like their mussels and I like you."

 

"Are you for real, Tim Bayliss? You truly don't mind socializing with an openly gay man in your own backyard – which also happens to be the backyard of the whole Police Department?"

 

"Ah, that." Rawls deserved a considered reply, so he took a moment. "Well, whoever I'm taking out to dinner at Bertha’s, I'd rather we didn't rip off our clothes and have sex right there, but past that – truly, Chris, I don't see a problem."

 

"Others will."

 

"That’s their problem."

 

"Okay, maybe you are for real. All right, Timothy Bayliss, I'd love to have dinner with you tonight, seven o'clock, at Bertha’s. Oh, and by the way…"

 

"Yeah?"

 

Lightly, "Where would you like to rip off our clothes and have sex?"

 

Felt so good to loosen up and laugh. "Let me get back to you on that. I’m still thinking."

 

"Take your time," in the same light tone, then seriously, "I mean it, Tim, no pressure. Just a joke."

 

"I know. See you tonight." So there, Bayliss thought to his partner’s uncompromising back. Which did nothing but make him feel petulant. He hung up and returned to the prosecution report Danvers was expecting yesterday.

 

"Free?" Pembleton asked, dripping irony, from right over his shoulder. Without waiting for an answer he leaned and slapped down the CIC sheet on Chris and jabbed at a line. "Now that you have a minute, this is what I asked you to look at."

 

Bayliss looked down, at the Requesting Officer block, saw his own ID number. Oh, fuck.

 

Now he remembered. He'd requested the routine check from Naomi before they'd rushed off to the morgue, when Chris had been just an involved-party on the crime scene. The case had matured in another direction fast and Bayliss had forgotten all about it. Considering them interchangeable as usual, Naomi must've left the report on Frank's desk.

 

Pembleton breathed into his ear, "Trust, Tim, you should try it sometime." By the time Bayliss could so much as turn around, he was grabbing his coat from the rack and heading out.

 

Fuck.

 

One other note of discord was in store for him, and he only remembered it when he left the building to find his jeep parked outside. He'd brought it in the morning so right after work he could go to his uncle's place. What with one thing or another, he had yet to pick up that damned plunger and fix the man's toilet. Right then, he had just enough time to get ready and take himself to Bertha's. He'd have to see to it later in the evening. On consideration, it was probably a good idea to have an errand to run after dinner. He could have a nice time without worrying about where it may or may not lead.

***

 

I should get somebody in here to clean this place, Bayliss thought, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt and grimacing at the stained tiles and moldy corners of the small bathroom. He put a folded towel on the floor to spare his pants, kneeled, reached behind the commode, cut off the water to the tank and removed its cover. He flushed out the remaining water and looked inside. As he'd thought, a simple enough job, hardly requiring concentration.

 

So Chris likes sports. He'd found that out between the appetizer and the main course, and he was still a little embarrassed at letting it surprise him momentarily. He'd been more surprised at realizing Chris' team loyalties lay north of Maryland, with New York. Over a couple of beers, they'd argued about it companionably, Chris being nowhere near as intense as Frank, in anything.

 

The old plunger came loose without bringing along chunks of the rust-pitted pipe, a small miracle in itself. He discarded it and started to install the new one, which might outlast the rest of the plumbing, maybe the whole house, maybe even --

 

Don't spoil a pleasant evening, he told himself. Let's see, Chris likes sports, Chris hates politics but votes Democrat, no surprise there, Chris gets a kick out of rap, had to tell me that one twice before I knew I'd heard right, he likes ice cream, he likes trains, he likes the bay, he likes me…

 

He really, really likes me.

 

I like being liked. Especially by someone who even lets me go without making me feel guilty or unwanted. "No problem," Chris had said when Bayliss begged off after dinner. "This is the third night in a row I've saddled Noreen with all the work. She already warned me she's thinking of lacing my food with saltpeter. Now I can let her off early and maybe she'll leave my libido alone."

 

Chris' libido. It'd be much like his, wouldn't it? His hands would know its shape, his body would recognize its heat, its strength, understand its will. You can wear each other's clothes, he'd told Frank. But past that, past the clothes -- wouldn't it be like wearing each other's skin? Matched in flesh and muscle, blood and pulse --

 

He felt a hand on his shoulder. Deep in his own head, in a far-away place where he was redefining desire and molding it in a form of kinship free from fear of touch, he simply looked up, maybe even smiled -- into the face of his true kin and forever-hell.

 

Suddenly, he was a child again, small and defenseless and trapped in a bathroom.

 

His uncle may or may not have said, "You're a good boy, Timmy." He heard it anyway, smelled his own nausea, the dank, filthy space closing in on him. No, no, no, crowded his throat, as uselessly as ever. Then without warning his anger broke free, surged to catch up to the voiceless fear dammed behind his teeth and, long-lit fuse to dry powder, exploded.

 

He grew. Just like that, like he'd seen in a book long ago and wished he could, too, like the little girl who drank the drink that said 'drink me' and in an instant grew and grew and grew too big to be trapped in a room, in a house even, he stood up and up and up while the thing that had scared him small fell far and far and farther down. Such an old, feeble thing. He could swat it, crush it, choke it, watch it struggle, die.

 

His hand wrapped around its weak, clammy throat, and he almost squeezed. But so huge and exhilarating was his power that in sudden contrast it made him feel powerless, and he realized he was about to lose his will to his anger as surely as he'd ever lost it to a sick man's perversions. He let go.

 

Rheumy eyes blinked up at him. "Wha--what?" the old man stammered shakily.

 

"Nothing. You startled me."

 

Would Frank have given him an out, too, as he had tried so hard to do for the girl who'd killed her abusive father? Probably. Listen to me, please, please listen to me, had begged the man unused to begging, it's not her fault, it's not your fault.

 

Then again, Frank always set the bar higher for him than anybody else and expected him to clear it even if he had break his neck doing it. So, probably not.

 

"Get out of here," he told his uncle, turning his back on him, "and let me finish up. Then I'm going to clean this filthy hole." What else could he have said? I’m sorry? He wasn’t. Don't ever touch me again? Too late. Why me? It would sound like he was asking Why not Jim, why not Kurt, when he only meant: What is it about me that said 'victim'? Anyway, if there was an answer, did he want to hear it?

 

Okay, yes, he'd clean the bathroom --'you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave'-- until it was at least possible to take a breath in it without choking.

***

 

The football was crisscrossing the squadroom from hand to hand. Attached to the corner of Pembleton's desk, Tim leaned precariously across it to catch Meldrick's pass. "Hey, watch it," Pembleton snapped, trying to no avail to rescue the stacks of files that toppled and fanned out over his desk, "Now look what you've done."

 

"Sorry, Frank." He tossed the ball to Kellerman.

 

Great, he was sorry. "Stop complicating my life!"

 

"Really, Frank, I'm sorry."

 

Oh, he was really sorry. Oh, joy. "At least shut up about it."

 

"No, really."

 

"All right already!"

 

"Truly, Frank, I am."

 

"What are you, Timmy -- " Kellerman tossed the ball back, "--truly?"

 

Munch clapped his hands to join the catch. "What man can truly answer that question, Mikey? We are amoebae, we're star stuff," he caught the ball, sent it spinning to Meldrick, "We're the mote in God's eye, we're the catcher in the rye, we're the face in the pie…" but Mike was listening to Meldrick telling him, "…and the bear says to him, 'You didn't really come here to hunt, did you?'"

 

"Get off my desk," Pembleton ordered Bayliss and Bayliss rushed to obey, "Where do you think you're going? Get your ass back where it belongs." But Tim was walking away, alarms were blaring through the building, Russert was calling for evacuation, Gee was bellowing at everybody to hurry up, grab the files and don't forget the board. There was a smell in the air -- no, two smells, a distinctly wet one, thick and cloying, the other pungent, acrid, but no time to think about it, "Move," Gee was prompting, "move, move, move," and they were spilling pell-mell in a confusion of bodies, coats, papers, weapons, files, and boxes onto the dark street streaked cold-blue and blood-red by the strobe lights. "What is it this time?" Pembleton shouted over the blaring sirens, "What's going on?" Weapons? Why did everybody have weapons? Why didn't he?

 

"Gas leak. The whole place can go up any minute."

 

"Shit, not again," Pembleton said to Tim at his side --

 

-- who wasn't there at his side. "Where's Bayliss? Hey, has anybody seen Bayliss?"

 

"I didn't know," Meldrick was pleading, "I swear, man, I didn't know."

 

"Have you seen Tim?" Pembleton asked Felton, who didn't answer him because his face was blown away, only smiled at him.

 

"You didn't want to know," Crosetti told Meldrick.

 

"Tim? Tim?" But he knew, Tim had never come out of the building. He had to go back in there after him. He pushed past Beau and his Cheshire smile, ran to the steps.

 

"Frank, it's a gas leak!" Giardello forbade him. He glanced back and started to tell his lieutenant he had to go see what was keeping Tim, but Gee wasn't talking to him while he was going up the stairs; Gee was talking to him as he was sitting on the hood of a car and lighting a cigarette, taking a long, life's-breath drag -- "Yeah, I know, Gee, these things aren't good for me," and he flicked the lit cigarette away, watched it arc past him and sail into the building as he stood frozen on the steps, and the smell was so strong now, I know that smell --

 

Smells like --

 

He woke up with a start to total silence and a disorienting absence of smell, found himself in the calm darkness of his bedroom. Once the remnant noise inside his head disappeared, he could register Mary's even breathing, the tiny, steady clicks of the alarm clock, the distant city sounds -- all's well, they said, in Frank Pembleton's own corner of the world.

 

All right, okay, his heart could stop trying to climb out of his chest now. Anytime now. Now. Okay, fine.

 

Goddamn Tim Bayliss. The fact Tim was going to be a thorn in his side, he'd known early on. He'd given a clear directive --Stay out of my face, rookie!-- and Tim had taken that to mean he now had permission to come wagging his tail from any other god-given direction. The further fact that he wasn't going to have the decency to keep their partnership confined to their profession had become all too apparent over time. But this? No, too damned much. However and whenever Bayliss had burrowed in deep enough to show up in his dreams and disrupt his sleep, he could just take himself along with his latent idiocy and burrow right out. Maybe Chris Rawls would take him in.

 

Yeah, well, he probably would. With bells on.

 

Damn it!

 

Just three days ago he hadn’t known Chris Rawls existed, let alone speculate on what manner of man he was. Pembleton had read the CIC sheet, certainly he had, whatever he'd said to Tim. Not even a parking ticket to the man's name. Except, since Rawls had applied for a liquor license the background check on him had been extensive and, while he sounded squeaky clean now, there was a notation of a sealed juvenile record. Could be anything, of course, from a prank to a crime spree.

 

Oh, good, as if Tim hadn't been enough, now he was wasting his night on Rawls. He should've kept his mouth shut way back then, should've let Tim stick to his claim of wide-eyed innocence and not told him to take another, closer look. If ignorance was bliss, maybe it was folly to be wise -- as it was turning out, Tim Bayliss’ ignorance and Frank Pembleton’s folly.

 

He needed to shut off this stupid roller coaster in his head and get some sleep. He cuddled closer to his wife's back, thinking she never used to sleep facing away from him, wishing he could wake her up, so she'd turn around and he'd make love to her -- okay, with her, as she preferred it said. Arousal kindled at the thought, but she wouldn't care to be awakened from a sound sleep just to remedy his sleeplessness. He didn't have the heart to be that selfish, either. Her busy life made enough demands on her.

 

As if on cue, a demand she wouldn't dream of ignoring arrived with small snuffling sounds from his son’s bassinet next to Mary’s side of the bed. He checked the clock. Yes, almost two. "Stay there," he patted his wife's shoulder as she started stirring, "I’ll get him." He might as well do something useful.

 

He got up, turned on a light, and changed the diapers first, even though Mary claimed it was best to wait until after the feeding. He didn’t care to chance them leaking onto his bed. Such an inconvenient way to make a human being, this whole baby business, but now that glimmers of personality were beginning to show, his second child was proving to be a happy extrovert. He busily gurgled up at his father and smiled his ready bare-gummed smile, so different from Livvy who had been a solemn baby, with disconcertingly direct, deliberate eyes and rare smiles. Except for Tim. Of course, Tim never quit until he got her to smile, so it was probably her way of getting him to stop pestering her. Maybe if he followed his daughter’s example and was a little more compliant -- nah, he’d give himself an ulcer and Tim a heart attack.

 

Mary had propped herself, unbuttoned her nightgown -- God, her breasts were luscious now, so full and round and begging for a mouth. Her son's mouth, of course, and she reached out her arms impatiently. He placed their baby in them and sat on the side of the bed, watching his son's demanding, voracious suckling with something shamefully close to resentment.

 

Why Mary wanted to breast-feed her babies every chance her hectic schedule permitted was something he didn't understand, didn't expect to understand. It made him feel a little left out. After a while, he reached and cupped the voluptuous weight of her unclaimed breast in his palm. He carefully did not squeeze, but full to bursting, a milky droplet welled up anyway. Suddenly curious, he leaned to take it onto the tip of his tongue. Another drop rose, he took that, too. It was thinner than he'd expected, near tasteless.

 

"Oh, Frank," Mary mumbled, sounding somewhere between amused and bemused. A trickle started, he lapped at it -- no, not tasteless. Flavorless, yes, but whole somehow, earthy, tasting of -- ? So warm, still carrying the core heat of her, deeper than skin warmth, the same blood-heated, moist warmth he found inside her when she sheathed him, or when her pleasure dissolved against his tongue --

 

Tasting of life.

 

He took her swollen nipple between his teeth and gently bit down. Only slightly, but a sudden flow filled his mouth.

 

"Frank!" Mary shoved him away. "Oh, for heaven's sake." She lifted her son to quickly burp him and placed him against her overflowing breast.

 

Unrepentant, he pushed down the covers and pushed up her nightgown, scooted back to lay his head on her thighs, his mouth seeking their insides. She mumbled something about the impossible, greedy men in her life. Not true, he wasn't greedy, he could wait until the little tyrant gratified his gluttony before he could get to gratifying his own appetite --her legs fell open to his stroking-- and hers.

 

They were both drowsy by the time Frank Jr. was sated and falling asleep at her breast, but they'd managed to get and stay turned on. Comfortably in tune with each other, she rolled onto her side with her baby still cuddled to her chest, and he moved up to curve into her back. He tucked his head into the damp warmth of her neck, wrapped his arms around her and their son --this is what made you, you shouldn't mind it-- entered her, slow and easy, rocked them. Unrushed, simply breathing and moving together in languid rhythm, they were content to wait for nature to take its course.

 

Sometimes perfection was an uncomplicated thing. So good, he thought, all the way into her and halfway to sleep, good as it gets.

***

 

Bayliss reached over, turned off the tape player on the night stand, yanked out the meditation tape, glared at it. 'Stress-Free Forever," it advertised itself. Yeah, right. He tossed it away, heard it go skittering on the floor, stared up at the angled shadows on the ceiling, watched them pivot and resettle as a car passed by outside. How much worse could this night get?

 

He'd read until the words blurred, had got up to push himself to exhaustion on the NordicTrac, tried the subliminal relaxation the self-help tape promised, and he was still too afraid of closing his eyes and falling into darkness --

 

You have to embrace it, love it, Frank had said.

 

I can't. I tried, been trying for a year, I can't. He's sick and twisted and --

 

He could almost hear Frank snap at him, I don't mean him, idiot.

 

Yeah, I know, but he shaped me -- or did he?

 

He pulled up the covers he'd kicked off only minutes before, instantly felt too hot and kicked them off again. Jesus, couldn't he make up his mind about anything?

 

So make it up. Does it really matter anymore if your past turned you into someone you weren't meant to be or kept you too scared all these years to accept who you are? You are. Here. Now. What do you want?

 

I don't know.

 

Okay, what don't you want?

 

I don't want to keep living with a stranger in my body. I need to fit inside my own skin.

 

And the last time I felt comfortable in there -- he'd come out of Bertha's with Chris, walked him to his car under the fall of winter's first snow, the air smelling resinous with smoke from fireplaces burning in the old, tight-packed buildings around the square.

 

Chris opening his car door and turning toward him to say goodbye, but Bayliss hadn't wanted to say goodbye. Standing there and looking at Chris's handsome face, at the crystal flakes catching on his lashes, his hair, landing and immediately melting on the warmth of his skin, his lips, he'd wanted to kiss him again.

 

Not possible. Not right there on the Market Square, directly across from Jimmy's and whoever happened to be inside. Only a kiss, a simple joy that hurts nobody. And not possible.

 

Sliding his hand inside Chris' coat and to his waist, a small rebellion hidden between the car and their bodies. The loose hem of the knit shirt allowing him to reach warm, smooth skin, taut on his flank, downy and softer toward his belly, tightening with an in-drawn breath at the brush of his hand and leaving a small gap between flesh and waistband. Warmer there, on the tender slope of his abdomen, furrier -- just a quick, secretive knowledge against the back of his fingers, and so suddenly carnal, touching him an inch or two closer to intimate, wondering about touching his uncovered thighs, his sex --

 

Chris smiling at him as he'd pulled away, his expression a little tantalized, a little lenient, thinking himself a participant in a playful moment's naughtiness, no more. How could he possibly know how it felt to Tim --the thought of touching another man's sex because he wanted to. Like discovering the possibility of flight off the razor's edge --

 

-- God, yes.

 

The same flintspark of excitement, salvaged from the rest of the night and back in his belly. Still feeling freshly discovered, untainted. He took a deep breath around it. It didn't hurt, it didn't cut. So he closed his eyes against hundred indecisions clamoring to crowd it out, slid his hand down and laid it almost protectively over the quivery tension deep in the hollow between his hipbones. Yeah, right there, uncoiling and turning into a palpable thing under his splayed fingers. He pressed his palm firmly down on it as if sounding the depths of his desire, kneaded it, encouraging it to take over, discharge the disquiet so long holding him hostage.

 

Warmth surged through him until his whole body felt it, and he let his hands roam over his flesh, following it here, anticipating it there. All flat planes and sharp angles under his sliding palms, but now he didn't have to deny what his hands perceived, didn't have to send his imagination far to remake it. Chris' body would feel like this, he'd rise like this, tighten and fit the curve of his hand -- oh, God, this felt new, too, used for too long only for relief, as a last resort, not first exploration.

 

Suddenly in no rush to end it, he rolled onto his stomach, wrapped his arms around the pillows, stretching his legs, rubbing them against each other, enjoying his own skin, the supple feel of his body as his muscles bunched and flexed in slow preoccupation with his desiring center. I think I'm done thinking, Chris. A luxury at first, and as the rhythm steadily gathered, a craving that left him caught breathless in a private thicket of passion.

 

I want this. I'm free to want and I want -- a rush of emotion --want to be held-- an intense longing --hold me-- the deliberate fancy of strong, accurate arms so tight around him that he felt them lock under the bones caging his heart --want to taste you-- like the jolt of hot, bitter coffee, and he shuddered with an abrupt flush of fever --inhale you-- deep and smoky and nicotine-sharp, sweet heresy burning his throat, filling his lungs --I want this-- rocking his hips as desire became a single element, letting his hand go skimming down the sheets to wrap around his hard, heated flesh, clenching his moans between his teeth --I want this, want you-- dark as used-up light, merciless and fierce, and that was all right, that was right, he was expecting nothing tender, just arrogant and elemental, a little unhearted as usual, driving him to the nerve's limit, pushing him to the core of the dark --

 

Fear slammed into him. Unnamed and fearful of being named.

 

--dark in here, dark enough to see. Don't look!

 

His muscles froze shut.

 

If you dream this, you can't undream it.

 

His eyes flew open.

 

That's right, don't look.

 

He clamped down and smothered the cry that rose in his throat.

 

Get out. Now.

 

He rolled out of the bed. There had to be some hard liquor left among the many bottles Julianna had steadily carried into his house. Please, let there be enough to numb him against the heavy, dense pull between his legs and the cold knot at the pit of his stomach, blank his mind and let him sleep.

***

 

"Look at my jacket," Munch stormed into the coffee room and angrily demanded attention from all and sundry.

 

Bayliss stopped watching the communal coffeepot come drip-by-drip closer to, hopefully, the remedy for his headache, and looked as asked. Munch's black jacket was stained with wet, milky streaks. No doubt from the Daily Grind coffee cup he was carrying, which reminded him he could've popped across the street for a cup, too.

 

Munch gingerly placed the remains of his coffee on the counter, inspected himself closer and became more irate. "Look at my shoes. My new shoes!" He turned around to display them to everybody in the room. Falsone raised his head briefly from some crime scene photos, and Gharty from his newspaper. Dutiful, two uniforms sharing a far table also looked.

 

Bayliss helpfully passed over a handful of napkins and cast about for a cloth towel to wet.

 

"I just wanted a decent cup of coffee, dammit. I didn't want to wear it," Munch complained, using the napkins on his jacket instead of his shoes and adding paper lint to the stains. "The job satisfaction on this beat's not that high in the first place. I'm sick of walking a gauntlet day after day just to get here, and I'm goddamned sick of people bleating into my face I gotta get used to them."

 

He must've have been jostled by one of the protesters outside the building. The quick closure of the Costello case had lessened their numbers and their zeal, but a few still showed up with their placards, demanding justice for Robson, a couple of conspiracy nuts even demanding it for Peter Fields.

 

"What's that about anyway?" Gharty put down his newspaper and piped up. "Who says I gotta get used to any pain in the ass just 'cause it's here and it's actin' up? My hemorrhoids are here, they're actin' up, too, but nobody's expectin' me to get used to them."

 

Munch leaned to dab at his shoes. "Wait 'till they get a lobby and a colorful flag."

 

Bayliss found the towel at the same instant he lost all helpful inclination, so he left it lying in the drawer and went back to watching the coffee drip.

 

"I got a flag, too, the real one, red, white and blue," Gharty was on a roll, "where does it get me?" He nodded toward Falsone, "Look at the last one Paul and Meldrick caught, a decent, successful family man from one of the oldest families of Maryland, the Ridenours. He ends up hanging by his neck in the cellar of a rowhouse on crack alley, but he was white and he didn't have a thing for schoolboys, so nobody's lifting placards for him."

 

Drip -- come on -- drip, drip.

 

"Ah, but these people are the disenfranchised, don't you know?" Munch tossed the bundled up napkins in the general direction of the wastebasket, "Like that's a licence to get in my face. Somebody should tell these people that -- "

 

Bayliss suddenly got tired of biting his lip. "Which people is that exactly, John?"

 

"The sweethearts down there, the Homoerectus Lites. Why're they still here, anyway?"

 

"Maybe because Robson is still in red, under your name."

 

"Yeah? Well, guess what, Timmy-boy, I can't perform miracles just because the late owner of some dead body preferred to stick his dick in the more unusual places when he wasn't so dead. Bodies fall 'round us every day and most are destined to stay stone-cold. You know as well as I do that Robson's one of them. What do you suggest I do?"

 

"I don't know, John, but I do know contempt's never closed a case yet. So how about a little less attitude and a lot less mouth?"

 

"Give my ass a break, Bayliss. Word is, you're the one here who can't seem to close the case on fags -- oops, not PC. What's the in word now, what's your pleasure -- or do I want to know?"

 

Bayliss didn't see his partner coming, hadn't even known he was around, but suddenly, from out of nowhere, Pembleton was between him and Munch. "Word is, John, bigotry is the only sharp weapon of a dull mind. Par for the course for your patty-cake buddy there, but I thought Jew-boys were supposed to be smart."

 

Bayliss' mouth dropped open. Yes, Frank had thrown a couple of white-boy comments at him before, but not with this kind of intent. Racial and ethnic slurs weren't in his lexicon. It wasn't all that much in his lexicon to jump to his partner's defense either.

 

"Hey, what is your problem lately?" Gharty attempted to interfere.

 

Pembleton ignored him and imitated Munch, "Oops, not PC. What's the in word, the Chosen People? Not very modest, are you, you people?"

 

"Hey, you -- " Gharty tried again.

 

"You," Pembleton rounded on him and snarled, "You can take it to the curb," raised his voice to call out, "Hey, Ballard, get your partner a shovel, he opened his mouth again."

 

Next thing, Falsone was holding Gharty, Bayliss had both arms around Frank, Munch was stalking off muttering to himself, Laura was demanding answers and Meldrick was barking out orders, "Whoa, bunkies, turn it down. Everybody, chill. Go cool it off. You," to Falsone and Gharty, "to the garage. You," to Bayliss and Pembleton, "to the roof. Before Gee comes down from Barnfather's office and roasts us all on an open fire."

 

Laura followed Gharty and Falsone, Meldrick went after Munch, and Bayliss cautiously took his arms from around his glowering partner, but kept a guiding hand in between Frank's shoulder blades until they were outside. At the far end of the roof, they stopped and faced away from each other.

 

"That was ugly," Tim told the east side of the harbor.

 

"I know," Pembleton said to the west side of it.

 

"Didn't help anything."

 

"I know."

 

"Wish you hadn't done it."

 

"Me, too. It's one thing to clash with an imbecile like Gharty. I don't like clashing with Munch."

 

Bayliss turned toward him. "Why didn't you stay out of it then? You don't have to defend me or my virtue, you know."

 

"We're partners," Frank threw up his hands. "It's in the job description."

 

"Don't put yourself out. We both know you never wanted the job."

 

"What is it with you, Bayliss?" Pembleton whirled to face him. "You get stuck in a groove and can't get out. It's been years --years-- since I told you I changed my mind. I looked you straight in the eye right there in the squadroom and told you: I want our partnership. But you're still playing the same scratchy song. You're the one who threw me out like yesterday's newspaper, remember? I had to grovel before you'd work with me again."

 

His mind boggled. In the end, he'd only required Frank to ask. He'd even told him he was open to being asked. When Frank got around to asking, he had still stinted on the words. Had Pembleton been on the other side, Tim Bayliss would've been expected to follow him on his knees through the headquarters, down Thames Street and the world without end, Amen. "You have a strange notion of groveling, Frank."

 

"I'm a prideful man, Bayliss. That was more groveling than I'm prepared to do for someone who can't make up his mind."

 

"Look, I know you don't understand about Chris -- "

 

"Forget Chris, I'm talking about us! You complain we're not enough of a family, we should be more caring and sharing and whatever the hell all that silly jazz. But the first moment you allow me to know one painful truth about you, suddenly I'm out, I'm history. I can't touch you, I can't talk to you, and the real kicker, five years of partnership is on the trash heap and I have no say-so about it."

 

"Frank, I -- "

 

"No, no. Shut up and listen. We got past that. We made it. Here we are today, still partners. That's fine, that's great, I don't want it any other way. If you really need me on your side, I won't lose a wink of sleep over offending Munch or anybody else. But you're not making sense. First you tell me you're looking for a little happiness. Not twenty-four hours later you tell me you're experimenting with a side trip into the darkest night of the soul -- because of something I've said, no less. And then you tell me, no, you're not confused. Well, I am. I mean, if you mean the former, okay, I don't get it, but fine, I'll live with it. But if you mean the latter, hell, Bayliss, what a namby-pamby way of going about it. Chris Rawls doesn't strike me as the dungeon master of the local Marquis de Sade Society. Yes, virtue is no virtue until it's tested by vice, but -- "

 

"So you do remember!" Just the day before he'd been pretending to have no recollection of a night that had turned Bayliss' lifelong assumptions upside down.

 

"But," Pembleton overrode him, "if you think you're testing your virtue by having cozy dinners with an 'interesting and funny' guy where you can get on the nerves of your fellow cops, then you're nothing but a silly dilettante. In fact, what happened with Fields in the box was a hell of a lot more honest. You really dare look into your dark side, face that. If you're going to have convictions, especially unconventional ones, go find the courage for them before you flaunt them in my face."

 

Bayliss found himself staring at his own reflection in the dark, uncompromising eyes. He looked so small that he thought he might disappear if Frank blinked once too often. He heard his partner draw a breath like another round cycling into the chamber, but Frank said no more, turned and left him alone with the silence he'd stripped free of loopholes.

 

Bayliss walked away, too, until the wire fence stopped him short of the far edge. He looked across at the skeleton of the burned out warehouse on one of the old, rusted-out piers, down at the dull, gray wash of the water right below him, then closer, at mounds of gritty snow yet to melt from around the bottoms of the fence posts. A brisk, scouring wind came off the bay and slapped his face -- as if he didn't feel flayed enough already.

 

All right, Frank. Okay. No sense in trying to keep a match lit against the dark in this wind.

~~~

When Frank Pembleton walked away, he preferred to keep walking. This time, though, he stopped, looked back at his partner across the long expanse of the roof.

 

People do not change, especially you, he remembered saying to Bayliss as they had stood over Tanya Thompson's small, battered body on the side of I-95. He'd meant it. Like a gospel, he'd meant it. He couldn't have imagined Tim changing, and this didn't feel like a change to him anyway, more like a seismic shift. He felt a chasm was about to open up under his feet, too.

 

He kept looking at his partner who wasn't looking back at him, who was facing away, into the open air. He watched as Bayliss lifted and spread his arms, hooked his fingertips onto the fence, raised his downcast head, and like that, at full extension and wind-blown, he looked like he was about to take flight.

 

Where are you going, baby?

 

 

After the last collapse of primary color

once the last absolutes were torn to pieces

you could begin

How you broke open, what sheathed you

until this moment

I know nothing about it

My ignorance of you amazes me

now that I watch you

starting to give yourself away

to the wind

 

"November"

Adrienne Rich

 

End of Part 1

 

~***~

 

 

 

Part 2

 

Trying every key in the bunch to get the door even ajar

not knowing whether it's locked or simply jammed from long disuse

trying the keys over and over then throwing the bunch away

staring around for an axe.

 

"Tear Gas"

Adrienne Rich

 

 

It was a slow night for Zodiac. Rawls had filled a plate from the kitchen, poured himself some wine, taken a back booth to catch up on bills. He was trying to decide if the promptness of his laundry service was still worth their rapidly escalating prices when Noreen leaned over his shoulder and whispered into his ear, "Fair warning, boss-man, the way your tall'n'lanky looks tonight, either you take him home and fuck him or I will."

 

Surprised, but pleased, that Tim would choose to show up out of the blue, Rawls turned and only then the full import of Noreen's words sank in. Wow. Tim wasn't wearing his glasses tonight, or anything else he had so far seemed to be in the habit of wearing. Under a zippered and studded black leather jacket, he had on a snow-white t-shirt, its neck scooped enough to reveal a gold chain circling the long column of his throat, a pair of worn and faded jeans, at least a size too small for him and at most skinning past a public indecency charge. Okay, maybe he was wearing his regular shoes, but who could look that far down?

 

You're going to sorely try my patience tonight, aren't you, Tim Bayliss?

 

Then Tim Bayliss walked up to him, leaned down with no preamble, held him by the nape and took his mouth in a hard kiss. Jesus! On second thought, who knows what you're going to try tonight. You're spoiling for something.

 

"Guess it'll have to be you," he heard Noreen say with dramatic resignation.

 

As Bayliss pulled away there were a few discreet claps around the room, and one not-so-discreet hoot. Rawls ignored them with all the dignity he could muster. Tim folded his long body into the booth, had to turn sideways to find enough room for his legs, then asked after the fact, "Mind if I join you?"

 

It was meant to be sultry, but it came out inept, the boy-next-door doing vamp. It should've been endearing. Right then, though, it only pointed out how erratic the man could be. There was something reckless in the mix tonight. Rawls collected his papers in one pile, pushed it aside, and offered like a good host, "What would you like to eat?"

 

"I'm not hungry, thanks."

 

No? He watched Bayliss confiscate his fork, wrap a great bundle of pasta around it and carry it to his mouth. But you certainly got an appetite, don't you?

 

Bayliss next commandeered his wine, took a healthy swallow. "That's really good." He licked his lips. Slowly. "I'm definitely developing a taste for reds."

 

Oh? Rawls motioned at a busboy for another glass. Whatever this was about, he knew he had done nothing to cause it. This wasn't about him at all. Something or someone had inflamed Tim. He was only catching the backdraft. He hoped it wouldn't scorch too badly.

***

 

Pembleton had stopped by the Waterfront before he'd headed home. The Ridenour case wrapped up, Lewis and Falsone had been propping the bar up and holding the usual postmortem by drinking with a vengeance and suffering each other. Tim hadn't been there.

 

It was late and the only light in the house shone dimly from the top of the stairs when he opened the front door -- too easily. Mary hadn't bothered to bolt it. It disturbed him more than usual. Hush your mouth, go to sleep, ol'Patty Ridenour'll take you back deep…

 

He could hear Frank Jr. fussing upstairs. "Mary," he called out.

 

"Up here."

 

"You didn't bolt the door."

 

She didn't answer. Must be busy with the baby. He got out of his hat and coat, put them away, took off his shoes, padded into the kitchen. Mary's habit of leaving him at least a sandwich on the kitchen table had gone the way of other such small considerations with the advent of their second child, so he wasn't expecting to find food handy. But he was expecting to find the patio door locked, not just slid closed for anybody who cared to push it open. "Mary!" This night particularly, the darkness out there held too many shadows for him. Got a gang of seven, takin' slave and freed, ridin' day'n'night on a coal black steed. "Mary!" he yelled again, heading for the stairs, found her coming down.

 

"What's your problem, Frank?"

 

"Damn it, Mary, you left the patio door open too, when are you going to learn?" he lit into her. "Where do you think you're living? This is Baltimore and you can't remember to lock the doors? Do you know how many -- "

 

"Stop. Stop right now," she raised her voice over his. "I spent the day lobbying a congressional asshole who thought he could employ any offensive tactic as long as his language was politically correct. A proposal I worked on for months isn't so much as going to get a hearing. Livvy has discovered climbing and, unfortunately, falling --I swear some idiot at day care is feeding her too much sugar-- and Frank Jr. won't go to sleep. I've had it."

 

Oh. Best back off. "Look, yes, I know it gets crazy sometimes -- "

 

"No, you don't!" she snapped at him. "No doubt whatever kept you from sharing all the fun I've been having here is a sacred crusade for the greater good of humanity -- ask me if I care. If you want to rant and rave, turn right around and go back. Maybe Tim has more patience for you tonight than I do."

 

He wouldn't bet on that, either, wherever Tim was. It seemed nobody loved him tonight. "I'm sorry, Mary, you're right. I'm sorry, what can I do?"

 

"For starters, secure the doors instead of talking about them and go see if you can get your son to settle down. I'm going to take a bath. Then I'm going to have a drink. And then I'm going to bed. Got all that?"

 

Immediate and unconditional obedience was the only way to weather this storm. "Yes."

"Good."

 

He thought he'd heard her last word for the night. But later, fresh from her bath, her hair in plaits, with her drink in her hand, she came into the living room where he'd taken the baby so everybody else could sleep in peace upstairs. She stood and watched him rocking their son. "You're okay here?"

 

"We're fine, go to bed."

 

Approaching, she held her glass to his mouth. He took a sip, felt it burn going down. "Sometimes you must wonder why you ever thought I was the man you wanted to live with."

 

She laughed softly. "Let me burst your bubble, Frank, I never thought you were the man I wanted to live with. I had to accept, kicking and screaming all the way, you were the man I couldn't live without. Try to appreciate the difference."

 

"I do."

 

She leaned to kiss him on the temple. "Good night."

 

"Good night, sweetie."

 

He watched her leave, then looked down into his son's dark eyes, staring fixedly at him, droopy lidded, but still stubbornly open. He made soft, soothing sounds, while inside his head the old terror kept jabbering: Hog-tie a man six-feet-four, kill little children for too much noise, so hush your mouth, get on asleep, ol'Patty Ridenour'll take you back deep…

***

 

Come down to my house and stick a stone in your mouth, you can always pull it out if you like it too much, vocalized a singer Rawls didn't remember hearing before, barely decipherable through the loud technopop beat of synthesizers that sounded arrayed for an altogether different song. Multicolored neon, serving as both lighting and decoration, pulsated to the relentless tempo, the reflective surfaces of high-tech plastic, glass, and chrome bathed the club in harsh flashes of electric color. Rawls sat at the bar and, like something shot in time-lapse, watched Tim dancing with nobody in particular on the strobing dance floor.

 

"I want to go to a club," he had announced before Rawls could so much as finish his dinner. Remembering how much Tim seemed to enjoy the place, he'd suggested the Carnivale, only to have Tim promptly declare the Floss to be his choice of the night.

 

Been here, done this years ago, Rawls thought. Fashions changed, music changed --well, maybe not so much, as Gloria Gaynor took over from the thin-voiced singer and uncompromisingly stated she'll survive-- but the basics stayed the same. Trade and trade-off as usual, the axis of this world. The working boys ran the whole spectrum from fresh-out-of-boys'-home Ken dolls to the shaved, pierced and tattooed specimens known in the trade as the Club-Fuck Hardies. The older men from the ever-hopeful ordinary to the muscle studs posing as if they were the only men in the place, ready to trade off money for sex, affection for orgasm, public sanction for public acts. The aspects unchanged since his own clubbing days were the ones making him feel too old, too weary for the scene now.

 

"That's where we arrested Fields," had been Tim's only stated reason for choosing this meat market. If any clarification was to be found in that comment, Rawls doubted he'd care to look for it.

 

He glanced at an impromptu lap-dance starting nearby, a skinny kid with blond dreadlocks and skull earrings straddling the legs of a leather-vested man sporting too many crucifixes on a massive chest, turned away to face the bar. He kept an eye on Tim's maiden voyage by way of the ornate, gilt-edged mirror that looked like a solitary refugee washed up here from pre-industrial age. Tim was crackling with energy and flinging it about with wild abandon. He was new and he was interesting. He had a tall man's body, broad-shouldered, wide-stanced, but he'd kept a youthful lankiness and a boyish face. He appealed to more than one type, and they all wanted a closer look. Some of them were angling for a hands-on look. The natives had smelled fresh blood and they were getting restless.

 

More than once Rawls had decided he'd had enough of the noise, the press of bodies, the smoke and the sweat, and also the undertow of arousal he couldn't help but feel in the sexually charged place. More than once he'd started to take off and leave Tim to his own devices. The man was a cop, he should know how to take care of himself. But Alan had been a strong, capable man, too. He couldn't shake off the memory of lifting the lid of the dumpster and finding his broken body. So he kept vigil perched on the bar stool, kept a frequent eye on Tim while he avoided eye-contact with anybody else, pretended to be only interested in drinking his drink --coke on ice with a twist of lemon. Even when he had been a teenager and advertising himself in jeans tighter than the one Bayliss sported, Chris Rawls had known better than to get intoxicated in places like the Floss.

 

The dance-mix reeled continually out of the speakers, one throbbing song emerging from the final thrumming of the one before. You learn to love the pain you feel, presently issued, you're nothing special here, the queerest of the queer. He liked that one; there was the hard-knock of honesty about it.

 

His coke was going flat with melting ice. He pushed it away and got up. He'd get another one, but first he had to go to the bathroom. On his way, he noticed two kids on the corner of the dance floor, totally ignoring the hectic rhythm, the pumping, gyrating bodies around them, and moving to a music only they could hear. One was a gorgeous creature, the other plain, especially by comparison, but they seemed equally fascinated by each other. They were young enough to find nothing paradoxical about gazing dreamily into one others' eyes while the way their lower bodies rubbed gave new meaning to stressed jeans. Rawls had to smile.

 

By the time he came back, music had turned slow and while the club was dimmer now it was easier to see without the chromatic flashes. The dance floor had been left to the ones who'd managed to pair off, the rest of the crowd had piled around the bar, making the bartender earn his keep. Bayliss was there, with a drink, leaning over to hear whatever a spike-haired, tank-topped twenty-something was saying to him. He smiled, shook his head, said something in turn, got a response and looked taken aback. The man laughed, reached across the bar into the closest bowl full of foil packets, picked up a few and slipped them into the pocket of Tim's jacket. He executed a turn calculated to show off his sculpted shoulders and walked away as Tim stared after him with his mouth half-open.

 

Rawls squeezed through, motioned at the bartender for another coke, and informed Bayliss, "In case you missed it, that was a direct invitation to follow him."

 

The steel-blue fluorescence of the bar light buzzing overhead washed out the flush of exertion from Tim's glistening skin, made it look like delicate alabaster, framed with dark, damp bangs. Still a little breathless, he said, "I told him I was with someone."

 

"What did he say to that?" Rawls asked and promptly joined in the answer word for word, "'Bring him along,'" making Tim shake his head ruefully. "I'm not interested, but if you are, that's okay. You want to go, go."

 

"No! I -- " he looked alarmed for an instant, then laughed as if he'd caught on to the joke, "Oh, I see, you didn't mean that."

 

Well, I'm glad one of us is confident, he thought, watching Bayliss' eyes catch the amateur lap-dance show now subdued with the prevailing rhythm from the speakers and more sensual because of it, then follow the ebb and flow of varying degrees of sexual improvisations around the club. More than looking, he seemed to be cramming them in, trying them on.

 

This kind of rapt fascination he'd seen in Bayliss at the Carnivale had turned his attention from passing to persistent, wasn't it? Why was it bothering him now? But, no, that had been something spontaneous and purely delightful. Delightfully pure. There was a premeditation about it now, a looked-for hunger Tim was deliberately provoking.

 

The overworked bartender finally brought his drink. He picked it up, drained half of it, needing its cold wash down his throat. He turned around for something other than Tim to look at, just in time to see a man approach the two boys he'd noticed earlier, tap the pretty one on the shoulder to get his attention and whisper into his ear. Obviously an offer the boy couldn't refuse. Even though he didn't look happy about it, he pulled away from his friend --lover, about-to-be lover?-- and let the man hustle him toward the back door.

 

Rawls felt like he'd just seen something perfectly dovetailed ripped apart. They had to be in the trade, since the boy left behind didn't object, didn't look angry. He just hung his head between his thin shoulders, stuck his hands into his pockets and scraped his toe on the dance floor a few times before he shuffled off it, looking the way lonely children look walking down the street and kicking stones.

 

He reached back to put his glass down -- I'll ask him to dance. How long could it take out there, up against a wall in the back alley? Ten minutes tops. He could distract this kid in the meantime, thank him for the dance, give him enough money so he could afford to get out of here for the night and take his friend with him. He pushed through and reached the boy, smiled at him. The boy looked up, smiled back hopefully. That was when Rawls noticed his blown pupils.

 

What was the use? The money would only go into the kid's vein. That does it, now I'm really depressed, he headed back to tell Bayliss he was on his own, I've had as much of this night as I can take. Whatever's tying you into knots, get someone else to untie it. Yet another interested party was looking to crowd up against Tim at the bar, one of the big, pumped-up he-men. Obviously you're not going to want for volunteers. He saw a large, muscled arm come up, run its heavily ringed hand down Tim's back to his buttocks.

 

Faster than he could credit, Bayliss spun and grabbed the man's arm. In a single move, he twisted the man around by twisting his arm behind him, gripped him by the hair, propelled him forward, and slammed him face down onto a table as everybody in his path barely had time to scatter out of the way. "Remind me, do I know you?" he snarled, bearing down, grinding the heavier man into the table, "Did I give you permission to touch me?"

 

As fast as he'd started the altercation, before anybody had time to react, Bayliss ended it. He left the man sprawled across the table, turned to Rawls as if at no point he'd lost track of his whereabouts, "I like this song," threw an arm around his shoulders. "Dance with me."

 

The muscle-bound specimen and his few equally muscle-bound buddies who separated from the crowd, no doubt wanted to make a bigger issue of it, but the bartender, who must know from Fields’ arrest that Tim was cop, was there, whispering to them, and they all seemed to settle for the better part of valor.

 

Rawls was pulled onto the dance floor while Melissa Etheridge claimed: I'm the only one who'd walk across the fire for you. Now that Bayliss had pounced, bit, and proved himself a predator, a circle of open space formed around them like a hollow spotlight. Tim didn't notice or didn't care. "God, you're beautiful," he said, looking down at him with adrenaline-lit eyes, more yellow than brown, reminding him of night prowlers headlights briefly pass over. He tapped the end of Rawls' nose with a finger, traced the outline of his mouth, "I like looking at you." Then he laughed, apparently just because.

 

What a lot of teeth you have.

 

Tim held his shoulders, swooped his hands down his arms to his wrists. Almost a surprise now, the fact those hands were still delicately slender, as they circled his wrists and towed his arms to his back, locked his hands behind him like deceptive handcuffs. Bound there, they were used to press firm into the small of his back to curve his spine in and fit him into the arch of Tim's larger frame, hold him fast to the sway and friction of Tim's hips.

 

He reacted, of course he did. Danger, aggression, testosterone, the usual contents of the witch's cauldron, coating his veins also, as any other male's -- except he'd tasted that brew before and hadn't liked it. Suddenly, his own attraction to this body was one more thing to despair of, making him all too susceptible to the imprisoning arms, the hard muscles of the thighs grinding the demanding hips into him--be careful what you wish for-- and grinding --you might get it-- -- and grinding…

 

I'm the only one, Etheridge sang into the dying refrain for the last time, but Tim didn't let go, and the next song came on, her edgy voice now asserting: If I wanted to I could do anything right, I could dance with the devil on a Saturday night.

 

There might be a right way of doing that, but he was sure there wasn't a safe way, especially when his own hormones couldn't decide if they were in a riot or a rout. "Let go of my hands, Tim. Tim. Tim."

 

Bayliss finally lifted his head from the nest he'd made for it damn near on top of Rawls', met his eyes through half closed lashes, "Hmm?" and smiled hazily.

 

He'd stoked them both into hard heat in the middle of this infernal den and had the nerve to smile that angel's smile. "Let go of my hands," Rawls pronounced clearly. "Now."

 

"Oh." He stopped moving. "Okay."

 

At long last free to choose his own movements, Rawls backed out of Bayliss' loosening hold. "I'm done, Tim. I'm going home."

 

Arms half-stretched, Bayliss looked as if he'd forgotten what to do with them. He dropped one, used the other to lift his hand and rake it through his hair. "Yeah, right, let's go."

 

"I'm going home."

 

"I'm going with you. I…uh -- I'm not?" He looked lost suddenly, cast about, came up with, "You drove."

 

What, cabs are discontinued? Don't quite dare stay without a security blanket? "Fine. You're ready to leave, I'll drive you." He turned and headed out.

 

Bayliss followed close on his heels, out the club, across the street, only peeled off to climb into the passenger seat. Rawls put the car in gear, backed out of parking and negotiated all the one-way turns to get onto the southbound lanes of I-83. The traffic was sparse on it. Good. The drive shouldn't take long.

 

Bayliss' hand reached to cover his resting on the gearshift. Rawls pulled his hand out from under, half expecting to find Tim's on his thigh next. The man was so obviously tuned up to a vibrating pitch. But Bayliss took his hand away and kept it to himself. He turned to look out his window. Two exits passed before he swallowed audibly and asked, "What's wrong, Chris?"

 

"Oh, I don't know. Back there I saw the cop you can be -- for all I know the cop you are. If you think I can safely make assumptions on who's in the car with me, you have less idea about my life than you think you do."

 

To his credit, Bayliss didn't try a meaningless I-wouldn't-hurt-you, you-can-trust-me spiel. He kept looking out and, finally, said, "I am a cop, even that cop. But I'm a good cop. Mostly, that's enough for me. Just that sometimes I get afraid I'm forgetting how to be anything else." He turned to reveal his face once more, "It's not just you, Chris. I scare me, too."

 

Goddammit, what was he going to do with this bundle of contradictions in his passenger seat?

 

Bayliss leaned back into the headrest. "Felt so good back there," he said after a while. "Dancing with you."

 

Yeah, I bet.

 

"Dancing usually makes feel, I don't know, kinda clumsy, like I don't fit, I'm too big. I move too much or something. I fit with you, felt great."

 

Oh, hell, he may have assigned innuendo to an innocent expression.

 

Bayliss looked out again and quietly told the cityscape blurring past the car, "I don't want to be alone tonight."

 

Okay then, we'll do it your way. I won't leave you until you know there are lonelier ways than being alone and decide for yourself. Instead of following the interstate to its end, he exited west after Pratt, made a right on Calvert to backtrack to Mt. Vernon. If he was going to do this, he preferred to have the home advantage.

 

The Zodiac looked properly put to bed for the night. He was going to have to break down and give Noreen that raise she'd started hinting at with all the subtlety of, well, Noreen. He was also going to have to replace the long-blown bulb to the stairs of his walk-up apartment if anybody beside him was to get there without stumbling, the way Bayliss was now doing. He quickly unlocked his front door, reached in and flipped on the hallway light so no foolish necks would be broken on his stairs. He let Bayliss in, walked in himself, closed the door, went only one step past Tim politely waiting to be led.

 

That's far enough.

 

He put both hands on Tim's chest and backed him up to the door. He looked startled, but as soon as Rawls' hands continued up his chest to push his jacket off his shoulders, he got it. "God, yes," he breathed, couldn't seem to wait even long enough for the jacket to come off. It slipped right back up his shoulders as his arms turned into a snare again. Okay, leather could stay, arms had to go. He gripped Tim's wrists --my turn-- to pull them away and place them against the door at Tim's sides --now keep them there. We're doing this by the numbers. I'm about to bare too much of you to too many of my senses, don't want to like it too well into the bargain. I might run the risk of fooling myself I know the man inside just because I've learned his surfaces.

 

So, by the numbers. Unsnap the waistband, pull the zipper down --Christ, when you go native, you really go native, don't you, no underwear?-- very carefully pull the zipper down, stop shaking, I'm not going to hurt you, there, bet that's a relief. Dammit, I knew you'd be beautiful -- no, keep your hands to yourself.

 

"Chris," with bare breath, "Let me hold you, let me touch you."

 

Later. If there is a later. Do you know you have the most beautiful legs? God, look at you, bared and flushed and ready to be loved. You can be loved so much better. This isn't it and I hope you know that. I doubt it, though, right now you're just hot. Hot and so lively to my hand. And wet already. No, don't help, I'm not trying to take off your jacket, we're past that, I'm looking for one of those condoms.

 

"Chris, wha--?"

 

There they are. Just need one.

 

"What're you -- oh. It's not, I mean, I'm not…no, you're right, you don't know me that well."

 

"I don't know anybody that well," however breathless you're leaving me. My voice sounds as ragged as yours. "Neither do you." That's your first lesson. Remember it. Please, please remember it. Don't get careless, don't let anyone use you badly, hurt you.

 

I'd better do this, you're all fumbling nerves. You're going to fly apart if you shake any harder. You have any idea how I'd love to hold you, smooth away every tremor, kiss you, there, on the lips you're biting so cruelly, there, where your pulse is trying to beat out of your skin at the base of your lovely throat, and everywhere else, and here, too, on the blades of your hipbones, in their hollows, below your belly, where your skin lies so thin that it doesn't hide the veins, so tender over corded muscle, and here…

 

There's so much of you…

 

Yeah, I know, feels good. Okay, okay, you can use your hands, I know you need to hold on now, use my shoulders, that's fine, lean on me. See how fast you forgot to be nervous, remembered how to move with single-minded purpose. When I dig my fingers into your hips, or here, the join of your thighs, I can feel you feel me all the way to your bones, I can almost touch your marrow-deep rhythm. You like this? More? You want more, you want it faster, don't hold back, I'm not fragile, I can weather your lust -- hell, if I'm not careful, I can get drunk on it.

 

Such a lot of noise you're keeping inside, I can feel it under my hands, riffling behind your heartbeat, rattling against your ribs, like someone caged in there. Why don't you let him out?

 

Come on, I feel you loving this, let me hear you loving it. How many lovers have heard you already? Let me.

 

No?

 

Is it me? Afraid to sound weak to another man?

 

Well, we're not lovers anyway, so all right --

 

-- all right, then, come on, if this is the only evidence of your passion you'll share, let me have it, come on.

 

Tim did make a sound, a small whimper, timed to the intense rush he could feel against his tongue and so badly wished he could taste, again caught in the seesaw of this night, wanting and not wanting, having and not having, building into a silent scream of frustration inside him, too.

 

He caught Tim, what else could he do, all those long limbs suddenly boneless and dismantling? Tim folded into him, warm, abandoned weight straining his arms, sighed shuddering breaths into his neck, making him want to feel tender, protective -- Goddammit!

 

He pushed and unloaded Tim back into the support of the door, sat on his heels to breathe deep and collect himself. His eyes not quite focused, Tim smiled sweetly and started to reach for him. Quickly, he scooted out of the way and found his feet with the help of the wall until he could look down at Tim's untidy sprawl. "That's the basic service. You could've had it from any hustler at the club. Can you spare some blood for the higher functions now?"

 

A few seconds for the words to penetrate his post-orgasm lassitude and Bayliss' eyes widened. He dropped his head into his palm, "Dammit, I'm screwing this up, too," pressed his fingers to his temples, "It wasn't about that. I just wanted to know if I could swim without sinking. I didn't want anything from a hustler."

 

"Yeah? That's too bad. 'Cause that's exactly what you've had. I used to be a hustler." He ducked into the hallway bathroom, got the box of Kleenex and came back to drop it onto Tim's lap. "Make no mistake, I'm not a hustler anymore." He pointed toward the other end of the hall, "That's my home. If you have a better reason to be in my home than the one that got you through the door, come on in. If not, lock the door behind you when you leave."

~~~

The easiest thing to do was to take Chris at his word, get up, clean up, and go. Maybe even the smartest thing. Except Bayliss knew he hadn't done a single smart thing all night, and now was the worst time to start. Okay, Chris had been a hustler once. He didn't deserve to be treated as one just because Tim Bayliss couldn't find his balance between not knowing what he wanted and wanting it desperately. Chris had demanded nothing even though he'd been just as turned on. The only thing to do was to get up, clean up and go make amends.

 

He washed up in the small bathroom, found himself lingering, feeling awkward about facing Chris after --just do it.

 

The narrow entrance hall opened up to a large area. It must've originally been divided into two or three cramped rooms as most Baltimore buildings of its vintage. The walls had been taken down since then, leaving oddly-placed columns and arches here and there, for support or decoration, Bayliss wasn't expert enough to tell. It was tidy, but not fussily so, furnished in mixed groupings with heavy, deep-seated furniture on age-mellowed hardwood floors. Chris seemed to prefer his rugs on his walls, alternating with bookcases. An eclectic, functional space that did not unnecessarily advertise its owner's orientation. Except maybe for the single poster on a plaster wall, an art photo of a nude male, young and Asian, looking remarkably like a lotus flower made of flesh. If the small-boned, eggshell-delicate beauty of the subject was to Chris' taste, Tim Bayliss had to be missing the mark big time.

 

He followed the sounds, and the smell of percolating coffee, walked into the kitchen and had to blink at the bright glare. All metal and glass and sleek tile, so different from the rest of the house it gave him pause, until he realized he was in a scaled-down industrial kitchen. Chris' profession explained that, but what explained the incredible clutter which seemed to have resulted from a crash between a medieval torture chamber and a space age lab?

 

Rawls noted his presence by reaching into a metal cabinet and taking down another mug to join the one waiting by the percolator. He then turned, followed Bayliss' gaze around and shrugged. "I like to cook."

 

"All these? Just to cook?" No wonder he couldn't cook worth a damn.

 

"I also like gadgets." He went to the wall-sized refrigerator with the thick plexiglass door, pulled out the cream, casting a helpless look at his own kitchen. "I intend to use them, but the truth is, I hardly ever do," he admitted ruefully. "I have no sense when it comes to kitchenware."

 

Somehow, Bayliss found that reassuring. It also helped bypass the awkwardness he'd expected. "Chris?" He took a deep breath. "I've been a selfish jerk all night long, I'm sorry."

 

"All right."

 

"You didn't want to go to the Floss in the first place, did you?"

 

"No."

 

"Should've said. You don't like clubs?"

 

"I like clubs just fine, I don't like meat racks. Do you like every single aspect of straight life? Do you think it's any different when you're gay?"

 

"No, of course not. I'm sorry."

 

"You said that already. It's okay, it's done. But, Tim, if you need a litmus test to decide whether you're straight, gay or bisexual, you're not going to find it in any club." He took the two steps necessary and briefly laid a hand on Bayliss' midriff. "You'll have find it here."

 

"Yeah, I know, that's what Frank said, too, except he didn't say it as nicely."

 

"So he knows," Rawls concluded. Clearly, he'd wondered about it.

 

"He knows most everything," he shrugged, "he's Frank."

 

"He has a problem with it?"

 

"Not with it, with me. As usual."

 

The percolator chimed. Rawls filled two mugs, picked them up, and looked down forlornly at an overflowing surface. "I used to have a kitchen table." He indicated the counter with a nod, "Bring the cream and sugar, will you? Oh, and spoons, that drawer, there."

 

He led the way to a glassed-in alcove that must've been a porch once, to a small table amidst a minor jungle, seating for four, no other dining area Bayliss could see. Maybe he didn't care to overpopulate his personal space. Bayliss sat down, took a sip of the coffee. Good, but very strong. That was okay, he probably needed it. He took a few more sips and by that time it was clear Chris wasn't going to volunteer anything, or do anything, not even drink his coffee. He seemed intent on simply sitting there and watching Bayliss' hands carry his mug to his mouth, back to the table, back to his mouth. "Chris?"

 

"Hmm?"

 

"Will you tell me about yourself?"

 

Rawls looked up and stared at him for a long minute, as if the question needed more clarification. "I grew up in Hagerstown," he said finally. "But that's a relative term. I lived there until I was fifteen. I did most of my growing up after that, in New York. About five years ago, when I finally put together enough money to start my own business, I moved back to Maryland. The restaurant trade in New York means dealing with protection rackets -- but that's not really what you wanted to know, is it?"

 

"I wanted to know about you."

 

"And that little bombshell I dropped on you out there didn't make an impression, right? If you want to know how come I ended up hustling, ask."

 

"Okay, how come?"

 

"I had to eat. I was fifteen, I had nothing else to sell."

 

Oh. He made a guess, "Your parents threw you out?"

 

"Hell, no, they were determined to hang on to me tooth and nail. I ran away."

 

"Why?"

 

Chris pushed his coffee away untasted, leaned his elbows on the table, propped his chin on his laced fingers and just watched him. "Okay," he said, obviously to a silent argument he'd had with himself. "Turn around and look," he told Bayliss, "The photo on the far wall, his name is Lee."

 

"That's someone you know? I thought it was a poster."

 

"Not that one, that is a poster. The small photo under it. The poster is Lee, too, he modeled. But that's everybody's Lee, not mine. All the pictures of him as an adult are studio shots. He wouldn't allow a camera near him unless the photos were going to be touched up. He…uh, he had some scarring. I kept one because I thought some day I'd wake up and wonder if he lives less in my memory than in my imagination. I know better now, but I can't seem to take it down."

 

Bayliss had to get up and go closer to see the photo. It had been taken on a bright summer day at a pool, two sun-browned, smiling young boys, very different in looks but lovely children both, despite the attendant scrapes and peeling noses. One was clearly Chris, about nine or so. The deep smile creases he carried now had been dimples then. The other boy looked more Asian in this photo than his grown-up image did on the poster. Probably airbrushed as much to make the image appeal to a wider audience as to cover imperfections. Bayliss returned to the table.

 

"His father used to be a Marine, brought home a Korean bride. Lee was eight when they moved into the neighborhood, we grew up together. Our families were close, but we'd have been drawn to each other anyway, not that we knew why at the time. I think we were in love long before we figured out why. Then our bodies caught up and we figured it out every chance we got."

 

He rose to go to the kitchen and came back with cocktail napkins, although there was no immediate need for them that Bayliss could see, except maybe Rawls' need to move. "We were kids and we were stupid," he continued as if there'd been no pause, but he didn't sit down. "We got caught, of course. Neither of us had enough sense to pretend it was just pubescent curiosity. We made it worse by our protestations of undying love. My father tried to beat it out of me. My mother persuaded him to enlist the help of the church and pray it out of me."

 

"What, like an exorcism?"

 

"Close. The whole congregation got into the crusade of saving my soul. Nobody prayed more fervently than I did. I thought it was the price I had to pay to be allowed to see him again." He frowned at a hanging plant and seemed to decide it needed to be rid of its dried leaves right then. "Then I found out his family had packed up and moved out of town already."

 

"So you ran away."

 

"I stuck around for a while, until I stole enough money. From my father, his friends, the church, I wasn't picky. I had to get myself to New York. I'd seen enough movies to know I could get lost there and they'd never find me. So one day I'd find Lee. I did, too." He looked at the dried leaves he'd collected, piled them on the table, leaned on the back of the chair he'd vacated. "Took me ten years, but I found him."

 

"My God, Chris, you were just a boy." Also a hustler and a thief, but right then Bayliss did not want to listen with a cop's ears. "It's a miracle you survived."

 

Rawls shrugged. "I had enough cash to live on for a while. By the time I had to earn money, I'd seen what would happen if I put any of it up my nose or in my arm. And I refused to touch anyone without a condom. I didn't know enough to worry about STDs, it was just the unforeseen benefit of being a dumb, love-struck kid. I imagined that with something between them and me, I'd stay pure somehow. Just a silly romantic notion, but it probably saved my life."

 

Still a miracle that he'd made it stick. Being gorgeous may have helped him set his own rules, but only being smart would've enabled him to avoid the real predators.

 

With an abrupt move, Rawls reached across the table, yanked the mug out of Bayliss' hand, making it slosh and spill on the table. "Stop fondling that thing!"

 

Startled, Bayliss could only gape at him.

 

Chris put the mug down with exaggerated care. "Why didn't you leave?"

 

"Do you want me to?"

 

"Do I want? No. Did you stay because you felt obligated to apologize?"

 

"I did need to apologize, but that's not the only reason."

 

"Need is one thing. Obligation is another. Pick one." He looked as close to exasperated as Bayliss had ever seen him, his normally mild eyes reminding him of Frank's when he considered Bayliss too dense to be pierced by anything less than spear-sharp.

 

He was being dense, wasn't he? How would he have felt if Chris had pushed him up against the door, unsnapped his jeans, only to lean on the wall and ask him to pass the time by taking a trip down memory lane? He rose and came around the table. "Neither," he refused both options. He was sure one would get him politely thanked and evicted. The other might permit Chris to voice his own needs for a change. He wanted to make doubly sure, so he stressed, "Want." He cupped Chris' face in his hands and kissed him.

 

Chris grabbed and held on tight. "God, Tim," he said when their mouths parted, "I hope you mean that. If you just lied to me, I'm not going to forgive you -- later. Right now, I'm taking you to bed."

***

 

Bayliss woke up, queasy and parched. His mouth was dry and tasted horrible. It wasn't exactly a hangover, just a nasty enough reminder he'd had too much to drink last night. Not the only thing he'd done too much of last night, but that was a whole different issue over which his brain and his body had widely differing opinions. Chances were, it had been stupid. Truth was, it had felt wonderful.

 

Quiet and careful not to wake Chris who had to be the mound under the comforter, he got up. Busily, he told himself Chris worked nights, probably slept late, and he was being considerate, but deep down he knew he wasn't ready to face the other man in the cold light of day.

 

He found his jeans, struggled to get them on. Jesus, what had prompted him to wear the damned things in the first place? He mostly wore suits with low inseams. Loose corduroys and warm-up pants were his casual clothes and he slept in his boxers. He hadn't worn a pair of jeans since college. In fact, these were the only pair remaining from then and he'd outgrown them in the meantime, so much so that they had uncomfortably scrunched up his boxers. He didn't own briefs, and he'd gone without. Only later he'd remembered that denim set up its own pressure points and rubbed too intimately as he moved. For some reason, he'd liked that and the devil-may-care feel of the absence of underwear. Then. Right now, it just felt abrasive and he felt downright idiotic.

 

Using the nearest bathroom would awaken Chris. He collected his scattered belongings and tiptoed to the one out in the hallway. What was he going to do, though, steal away like a thief? The fact he wanted to do exactly that was not to his credit, he knew that much. He splashed his face with cold water, hoping it'd help his dry, burning eyes. Falling asleep with his contacts in hadn't been too smart. The water didn't help his eyes, but felt icy when it hit his chest and made him shiver.

 

"Good morning -- I hope."

 

He spun around and found Rawls standing there. Heavy-lidded, tousled, unabashedly naked, the man who'd become his lover. Suddenly his last memory of the night replayed itself.

 

Boneless and sated. Just a single thorn in his comfort, keeping him from finding rest. "I have to wash my hands." Chris laughing softly and taking his hands. Licking them. Falling asleep as Chris licked his fingers clean one by one…

 

He must've turned too fast. Or something. He was nauseated and dizzy. Dizzy? The way he felt, he could've been spinning like a top. Arms locked around him, made him back up and sit. "Lean forward, put your head down."

 

"I'm okay."

 

"You're fine. Just breathe deep and take it easy for a moment."

 

Couldn't he do anything right? The reward for baby-sitting Tim Bayliss' epiphany, he takes one look at you and has a panic attack. How flattering. "I'm…I'm sorry," he said as soon as he could lift his head. "God, Chris, I'm sorry."

 

Rawls kneeled before him, rubbed his arms and shoulders. "It's okay, Tim. The ground opened up under you. You're allowed to feel like you've taken a header down the rabbit hole." He took Bayliss' hands and chafed them briskly. "I won't take it personally, promise. Come on, breathe. Just relax and breathe."

 

The blood roaring in his ears settled into dull thud. In another minute, his stomach unclenched and he felt as steady as he was likely to feel on this morning. Hazily, he looked down at Chris' calm, beautiful face and felt an immeasurable gratitude for it. He lifted one hand and cupped it in his palm. Chris smiled at him. "Better?"

 

"Much."

 

"Good."

 

He got around to smiling back. "I'd like to kiss you, but even I can't stand my mouth."

 

Chris, bless him, wasn't made of martyr cloth. "Don't take bets on mine, either. Come on," he tugged Bayliss up, "there's a new toothbrush in the other bathroom. A little paste, a glass of orange juice with breakfast, you'll be fit for kissing again."

 

"I'm not hungry."

 

"Of course you are. Take a shower, shave, pull yourself together, you'll find out you'd kill for some protein."

 

"I'll be late to work."

 

"But you'll be functional when you get there. Move it."

 

He wondered if he'd ever had a practical lover before, couldn't think of one. There was a lot to be said for it. Okay, he'd forego stopping by his apartment and change at work instead. It'd save time.

***

 

Taking the back ramp up to the second floor, Bayliss hoped for an inconspicuous entrance, but of course, no such luck. Judy took one look and cooed, "Oh my, where have you been hidin', darlin'," Meldrick saw fit to give him directions, "Vice's next door, at 202," Gharty nasally wondered what time the leather bars closed lately, Kellerman, with unholy glee, pointed out Gee would not be best pleased, but worst of all, Falsone gave him a thumbs up and a comradely, "Hey, paisan, cool." Could he possibly sink any lower?

 

He dived for the refuge of the locker room, skidded to a halt to keep from colliding with his partner, met Frank's naked bladed eyes after they scraped his entire length to the bone and came to their own conclusion. And he realized, yeah, he could sink lower. "I, uh -- " Speech always became a mumbling, stumbling problem for him when he knew all possible words wouldn't suffice and silence would talk too much. "Frank, I -- "

 

"Shut up," his curt order dismissed Bayliss, his cutting eyes didn't.

 

He had to turn away from them himself. Black-watched all the way, he went to his locker, got out the change of clothing he kept there against vagaries of life in Homicide, and took himself to the bathroom. It proved to be no refuge. Pembleton followed him in, closed the door and put his back against it. "I was wrong," he said, quiet as a fuse, "it's thirty-seven, not twenty-six. But don't you think that's too old?"

 

"What?"

 

"The age you wake up and suddenly decide you're a tad homosexual. Or are you still calling it an experiment?"

 

"Jee-zus, Frank!" He couldn't help it, he checked the stalls. Empty.

 

"Ashamed, are we?" Sounding inordinately pleased, he taunted, "Will Rawls still love you if he knows you're ashamed?"

 

"Damn it -- "

 

"Ask him, why don't you? While you're at it, tell him he's your version of seeping yourself in the muck of vice -- and don't you dare lay that on me again! Tell him, see what he says." That, apparently, was all he cared to say. He slammed the door after himself and was gone.

 

Summary verdict, Frank Pembleton style. Just like his truth, direct as a stone. Bayliss carefully avoided looking in the mirror and changed his clothes.

 

No end of joy today, obviously, for Munch cornered him as he was shoving the night's attire, rolled up in a ball, into his locker. "I have to talk to you."

 

"What do you want, John?" he asked wearily.

 

After looking around, Munch leaned close. "Yesterday, I -- " He shifted uncomfortably, started again, "What they're saying about you lately, you know what they're saying, right? Well, nobody's mouth is charged by the hour for yapping, so I figure, you're the only horse's mouth, so what do you say, is it true?"

 

"Just drop it, okay?"

 

"Come on, Tim. The rumor mill's churning overtime. Pembleton thinks if he snarls nastily enough nobody's gonna notice he's busy throwing a smokescreen around you. A body likes to know where things stand. You can tell me."

 

He closed his locker, rested his forehead against its door. "Why is my private life suddenly everybody's business?"

 

"It is true then?"

 

He'd had enough. He whirled into Munch's face, who took one step back, then stood his ground. "Okay, John, yeah, it's true, okay? Is that okay with you? Tell me, what difference can that possibly make to you?"

 

"Just one, I'm sorry for my big mouth yesterday. I heard talk and assumed it was the latest in our usual let's-beat-up-on-Timmy routine. I didn't know. You know me, I always say the wrong thing, but I swear, Tim, I really didn't know."

 

Strangely enough, that embarrassed him. He ducked his head. "I believe you, John, it's okay. No big deal, don't worry about it."

 

"Is this something I should've figured out all along?"

 

"It's probably something I should've figured out all along," he shrugged, a loosening move, and only then realized how tightly he'd been keeping his muscles clenched. "It's a new one on me, too." He felt he could ask, "It doesn't bother you?"

 

"You were right in the first place, none of my business. Now that I know, it's just something else I know, know what I mean?" He looked relieved as well. "But if I ever star in one of your dreams, however incredibly masterful I was," he added in vintage Munch fashion, "don't tell me. That, I don't want to know. Might put me off my stroke."

 

He could only sputter, "I think you're safe, John."

 

Munch turned to go, then stopped to add, "I can't talk to Pembleton at the best of times. If it ever comes up, tell him I said we're even, okay?"

 

"Tim," Laura Ballard chose that moment to bounce into the locker room, "there you are, saw you come in from Daily Grind --" only to stop and pout, "Aw, you've changed already."

 

Bayliss figured out she was simply talking of clothes, of course, but he lost it. His mind still boggling over the notion of John Munch as the stuff of wet dreams, his nerves already frayed and unsteady from his night-before with Chris and its morning-after by Frank, the juxtaposition of her words and timing, added to Munch's constipated expression at having to let such a perfect opening pass without opening his mouth -- he lost it. Totally. He leaned into one of the lockers, pounded on it, and laughed until tears were rolling down his face. It is my life and I'll laugh if I want to.

 

"Well, he does clean up nicely," he heard Laura explain to John as if obliged to do so and aggrieved about it, then she added in her more chipper way, "actually I should say dirty down nicely."

 

Oh yes, definitely, as soon as he could stop laughing and catch his breath, first thing, he was going to find a way to ask her out. Wasn't there an exhibit at the Artists' Co-Op, something about masks? That should be just about right.

***

 

Chris Rawls turned out the last light, leaving only the thin illumination of the street lamps filtering through the closed curtains. Not that he needed it; he could find his way through his restaurant blindfolded. He took his coat and draped it over his arm, not expecting to need it in the short distance between the entrance to the Zodiac and the door that led to his apartment up the stairs. When he came out onto the street, though, he found a clear and cold night, a familiar jeep parked against the curb, and Tim Bayliss, collar up and hands in pockets, leaning against it. "Hi. Why didn't you come in?"

 

"I just got here, saw the lights going out," Bayliss explained, then smiled sheepishly and added, "--hi."

 

"Working late?"

 

"No. I'm on my break."

 

"Missed dinner?"

 

"No --hey, wanna go for a walk?"

 

"Yeah, sure," Rawls managed to sound enthusiastic and shrugged into his coat, thinking he should've had the good sense to wait until spring to pick up with Tim Bayliss. "Lead on."

 

Both aware of the cold, they started briskly down the street, but in no time at all Bayliss' tempo slackened. Rawls watched in amusement as his long strides shortened with each step until they hadn't gone the length of a single block and Bayliss chose somebody's stoop and sat on it, folding up his legs to wrap his arms around them.

 

Rawls leaned onto the iron railing of the steps. "Tired?" It came out more as a tease than a question. He really didn't mean to make fun of Tim but anybody who was that transparent shouldn't expect others to be that blind.

 

"No." An unhappy sounding mumble.

 

He knew Bayliss didn't have the slightest interest in taking a walk. He was dying to go up to the apartment and get down and dirty. But he didn't feel right about dropping by unannounced in the middle of the night just for a hot bout of sex. One thing to be said about straights, God bless their women, they gave their men manners. Thinking of which --

 

"So," Rawls asked lightly, "did you prove I didn't break it?"

 

"Huh?"

 

"Come on, Tim, you're not the only latent I know."

 

"Meaning?"

 

"Meaning, don't tell me in the last couple of days you didn't let a woman take you out for a test drive to make sure everything still works." Bayliss tried to glare, couldn't sustain it, looked abashed instead. Rawls decided not to tell him how appealing it looked on him.

 

"You're right, I…I did. Tonight. Stupid, huh?" He looked down at his knees, "Didn't get as far as driving, though. It didn't work -- I mean, yeah, that would've worked, it was working just fine actually, but…" he trailed off.

 

Rawls sat down next to him, a tight fit on the narrow stairs but neither seemed to mind. Rawls, for one, was glad of the warmth. "You can tell me. You don't have to. But you can."

 

"I work with her and…well, I like her. She's a colleague, though, not a pick-up. I should've stuck to dinner and the exhibit. She doesn't know enough about me. By the time it dawned on me she's entitled to know a hell of a lot more, we were a little past the point I could say, oh, by the way, I also sleep with a man, do you mind?" He sighed and threw his head back. "So instead I just mumble something about the time and get out of there. I must've left her with a priceless impression."

 

"No doubt. And you left yourself wired for action, so here you are."

 

"Chris, no, I -- "

 

"It's all right, I'm not sending you away."

 

"If that's what you think, send me away. I'd prefer it. I didn't come here because I'm hard up. I have a right hand, I'm used to it. I came to you because…because I need," he jumped up and started pacing with just a few steps in each direction as if in a very small cage, "Christ, I just need a little honesty. Wrong time to be honest with Laura. Lately, it's always the wrong time to be honest with Frank. Mind you, Frank wants me to be honest with him -- no, actually Frank wants me to be honest with myself. Wants? Hell, he positively insists. Claws and rips into my head, flays me with his insistence that I be honest with myself, but he doesn't want me to be honest with him, no siree, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, Frank doesn't want to know. Frank Pembleton's above all the little inconsistencies and insecurities Tim Bayliss is prone to, he'll gladly point them out, stomp on 'em, but he won't stand for them in his face, and I can understand, nobody likes to look at the underside of things, but then why does he keep turning over the rocks? Well, we all know why, don't we, Frank doesn't believe in illusions, and if Frank doesn't believe in them, then Tim Bayliss can't have them, right?"

 

How interesting. Bayliss hardly ever mentioned his partner in casual conversations. Except for pointing out what a great cop he was partnered with, he was tight-lipped about him. But suddenly, now that a dam had burst, Frank Pembleton was pouring out. A thought occurred to Rawls, he almost threw it away, then looked at it closer.

 

"Wait, don't let me forget," Bayliss had caught his second wind. "Frank wants me to be honest with you, too, and you know something, he's right, I mean, look at me, I am thirty-seven years old, it is too old to suddenly decide I'm --how did it go? Yes, 'a tad homosexual.' And yes, one more thing I have to tell you -- no, Frank believes I have to tell you, that all I'm doing with you is trying to figure out how corruptible I am. He's wrong. Frank's not often wrong, but he's wrong about this. What's the use, though? I can tell you you're not just a stand-in for every feeling I ever disavowed for every other man, but why should you believe me?"

 

"Actually, Tim, I do believe you." About every other man, I do. Suddenly, though, I'm not all that sure about one man. "It's not fashionable to say so in my community, but I think you're bisexual by nature. With just as satisfying a sexual outlet, a sanctioned one at that, why should you have risked yourself? I wouldn't have. You think this is the choice I'd have made if I had a choice? I'm not a masochist, I don't want to be an outcast. I have no choice about it. You do. Yet you're here."

 

"I'm here," Bayliss echoed as if he'd just noticed. "Oh, if we're being honest, I should also tell you, sure, I can use my hand, but I'd rather have yours."

 

Rawls chuckled. He got up to face Bayliss, put his arms loosely around his waist. "Oh, I can probably manage a bit more than that."

 

Bayliss dropped his head down to rest on his. "I want honesty tonight, Chris, and I want to be loved. I don't care how."

 

You may not be ready for as much honesty as you think you are, Rawls thought, but the rest, yeah, I can do that. "Come on, Tim, it's starting to rain, let's go back before we're cold and wet."

 

Once they were inside and warm and together on the bed, he gave as much honesty as he thought Tim could handle, told him he was beautiful, naked like this and aroused, explained it all to him with his hands and his mouth. When his own desire clamored, he didn't dilute its truth either. He laid Tim on his back, straddled him, prepared them both, lifted up and joined them. In the first tight-drawn moment, Tim reminded him of the statue of a saint he'd seen as a boy, caught in an ecstasy which had looked to be a scary thing. The moment passed and he didn't want to think anymore, only feel -- such delicious torment. He closed his eyes and threw back his head, the hands convulsively jailing and loosing his thighs moved to his hips with purpose and he knew Tim's apprehensions had passed.

 

Afterwards, he looked down at Tim, out for the count before their bodies could so much as separate, breathing less guardedly in his sleep than in his pleasure, found in himself an indulgent smile he didn't begrudge wasting on the worn-out man -- just as well he wasn't fussy about what form his compliments came in.

***

 

Did you lose yourself?

 

He didn't want to hear.

 

…his nerves unraveling, movements broken, sex out of sync, and he grabbed for Chris' hips to fast-root them and find the rhythm again, just for a moment, that was all it'd take, but his hands closed on emptiness.

 

Did you lose me?

 

He was alone with fear in his belly and excitement in his flesh…

 

Are you ashamed?

 

…alone and naked and exposed in the watched dark.

 

"Are you ashamed?" Frank repeated from the shadows.

 

"No." Only a whisper, but his lips tingled from the shock of his own voice.

 

"You're scared," Frank knew.

 

He mustn't speak again.

 

"What're you scared of?"

 

Shhh, not a sound.

 

"Tell me."

 

you won't believe me i'm not a liar

you won't help me don't leave me in jail

you will leave me

alone

 

"Nothing to be scared of," so gently, "I'm here."

 

If I'm very, very quiet…

 

And, oh, yes, Frank was shrouding him like sun-warmed earth, dark and dense and rich, and he opened his mouth --want to breathe you-- to let the fragrant earth downpour into him --be filled by you-- he was suffocating, of course, but that couldn't be helped, until, finally, all sound, all possibility of sound were buried inside his throat and now --I-- it was safe to speak --love-- no one would ever hear --you.

 

"Tim, Tim, wake up!"

 

Something shook him hard. He gasped and wondered why he tasted air. He wondered why he wanted to cry because he tasted air. Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry.

 

Chris wiped his cheek. It surprised him for he was sure he wasn't crying. But he could feel wetness in the touch and he realized he already must have. She cried and she died.

 

Chris held him, let him hide his face. "It's okay," he said soothingly, but he must be wondering if he was ever going to wake up and not find a lunatic in his home.

 

"Please, it's…it's not you."

 

"I didn't assume it was." There was something strangely sad in his voice.

 

"I'm sorry. I'm not -- I'm not handling this very well."

 

"I know."

 

"Maybe I need to go away for a bit, get my head together."

 

"Maybe you should, " Chris agreed quietly. "Take your time, don't worry about it, find your own way."

 

He stayed in Chris' arms, listening to the raindrops drumming on the windows. They couldn't have slept long. It was dark in the room, no light from outside lined the edges of the shades. "I don't know why you put up with me."

 

"You wouldn't believe what I can put up with."

 

"Tell me?" Tell me anything, take my mind off of -- just take mind off.

 

"You won't find it a pretty story."

 

"Is it about the boy you loved?"

 

"Love. Never understood why feelings should be in the past tense. Lovers die, not the love you feel for them."

 

"Lee died?" He felt he could only ask it in a soft whisper.

 

"Yes."

 

"Was it -- ? " No, he couldn't ask that, not even in a whisper.

 

"AIDS?" Rawls heard anyway. "No. The chances he took, it couldn't have been far away, except a sadistic monster beat it to the punch -- " a harsh laugh, "literally."

 

"I'm sorry. No wonder you were so determined to help with Alan."

 

"It wasn't like that, this was something Lee went out to find. It wasn't gay-bashing or a hate crime -- not in that sense. There must be some type of hate in warping sex from an expression of love, or passion at the very least, into an instrument of torture." His arms seemed to collapse from around Bayliss and he pushed away toward the edge of the bed. "Lee couldn't find it at home, I couldn't do it, I tried, I couldn't. I still remembered how it was before, I just couldn't hurt him like that. I was there when he discovered his sexuality, it was such a tender, playful thing, it was meant for joy, not pain, so how could I hurt him like that?"

 

Bayliss wished he could see Chris better, but didn't dare turn on a lamp. Some things were easier said under cover of darkness.

 

"Because I couldn't hurt him, somebody else did and didn't know when to stop, or just didn't want to, what's the difference, it's the old joke, the cure worked, but the patient died, isn't that how it goes, that's how the bastards at the Chase-Levinger would see it, right?" His voice was dry, almost a rasp, but somehow a sound parallel with rain and tears.

 

"Shhh, Chris. Chris, come on, it's okay, I'm here, it's all right," meaningless words, just soothing noise as their roles switched and now he was the one pulling Chris into his arms, offering his shoulder. "What's Chase-Levinger?"

 

"Chase-Levinger Medical Center, Battle Creek, Michigan, how's that for legitimacy? They used to treat homosexuality in their psyche ward; that's where his parents put him after they took him away from me. Remember all the rage back then, electric shock?"

 

"That was for mental illness."

 

"How do you think they categorized homosexuality? By the time medical guidelines stopped listing it as a sickness it was five years too late to keep them from attaching electrodes to Lee's body and shocking him when he reacted to the gay porn they forced him to watch -- for all that's holy, he was still a child, he didn't even know half the things in those movies were possible. They called it aversion therapy. The only thing they averted was his ability to have pleasure without pain. By the time I found him, he was so far into S&M that he couldn't get much out of sex without it. First he tried it my way, didn't work for long, then I tried to try it his way, it was even worse, by the time I got him going I was either in the bathroom throwing up or curled in a ball crying."

 

He clenched around his middle as if it still hurt in there, and it probably it did. Bayliss let him curl up, curled up around him, stroked his back.

 

"So we stopped having sex. I didn't care -- no, that's a lie, I cared, of course I cared, but not enough to give up having him with me, sleeping in my arms every night -- or whenever he came back from wherever he went. He always came back."

 

Bruised and bloody, he'd bet, and Chris must've taken care of him, hurt for him. Love always carried the heavier burden. It's okay, he mentioned with his touches on Chris' back, shoulders, I'm here.

 

Chris kept wiping at his nose with the back of his hand, a child-like gesture he didn't seem aware of. "At first he'd swear never again, but that was because he thought I'd leave him, when he realized I wouldn't, ever, he finally stopped lying to me."

 

He raised his eyes to Tim's face. In the dark, he must have guessed at rather than saw his expression, but it was enough to anger him. "Don't look at me as if I were a martyr! We were in love, we'd never loved anybody else in our lives, we were happy, we had wonderful times together -- it wasn't a sacrifice, dammit, and I don't want to talk about it anymore! He's gone, his family hadn't had a thing to do with him for years, but on some fucking paper they were still more his family than me, so they got notified, they came and got him from the morgue, took him away from me again, I don't even know where they buried him, and it's over, and it's done, okay?"

 

"Okay, yes, it's okay. You don't have talk about it, it's all right, I understand." He tented his body over Chris', cradled his face in his hands, "I'm glad you were happy, I believe you, and I'm glad," and kissed his forehead, his eyes behind shuttered eyelids, found the down-drawn grief at the corners of his lips, licked at it, found his beautiful mouth pressed into a thin scar, kissed it until it softened under his mouth, opened to him.

 

Bayliss didn't say anything else, platitudes felt obscene right then, he let his hands talk, trying to smooth down raw-edged nerves with swirls of his fingers, prompting, provoking the flesh chilled by memory into warmth, until Chris seemed to relax and soak it up. When he felt Chris hardening against him, he slid down and took him in his mouth.

 

"Tim?" Chris' hand on his nape stopped him, made him look up. "Are you saying goodbye?"

 

"No! What makes you -- oh." He'd said he was going away. He'd intended to get up and go, too. Not anymore. "I meant just for a while, I'll be back. My cousin and his family, they've been wanting me to go with them on their vacation." Probably to help with all those kids. "I think I need to be somewhere really different and get my head together." He had to smile, "Can't get much more different than Disney World."

 

"Disney World?" It got Chris to chuckle. "Be careful, I hear the Caribbean pirates are a pillaging lot. Tim -- " He carded his fingers through Bayliss' hair, his thumbs stroked over cheekbones, temples, "What I said about loving Lee, it's not an object you have to remove before you can put another in its place. There's room for you -- if you want it."

 

He swallowed around a hard lump in his throat and could only say, "I am coming back, Chris."

 

"Okay," Chris accepted and gently pushed his head back down.

***

 

Goddammit, Tim was late again. Coming off two whole days of their break, couldn't he have managed to drag his ass to work on time for a change? He'd better not have the nerve to get huffy if a call came in before he did and his partner rolled out on it with someone else.

 

Willing the phone to ring, now, Pembleton hung up his coat. To make matters worse, the squadroom had turned upside down during his absence and tension crackled in the air. Apparently, Georgia Rae Mahoney had filed a wrongful death suit over Luther and had papered the place with subpoenas, citing in her civil action the officers involved, the department, the city, and probably all the way up to the Almighty. Which seemed to have resulted in Meldrick provoking an altercation with her last night and getting suspended for it. Kellerman had just found out and was having a fit, taking it out on the drawers of his desk, yanking them open and slamming them closed for no discernible reason.

 

And there was Munch, never one to throw water on the fire if he could add fuel, being his usual doom sayer. "Spare yourself the heartache and kiss him off right now," he was telling Falsone who'd been riding with Lewis steadily since whatever happened to break up Mike and Meldrick had happened, "He's not coming back. Take it from me, first they go on suspension, and then they just go and stay gone. You won't so much as get a Christmas card." Clearly, the sting of Stan's desertion was still with him. "Meldrick's history, and the sooner you get used to it, the better off you'll be."

 

Of course, the gloomy predictions were rolling right over Falsone's back. The one getting infuriated about them was Kellerman, looking ready to pummel someone if he could only choose between Munch and Falsone.

 

His radar for trouble as functional as ever, Giardello opened the door of his office and accurately subjected one and all to the full force of his darkest glare. Once he was assured all his charges had considered the dire consequences of his wrath, he crooked his finger at Pembleton, "A minute, Frank?"

 

"Coming, Gee." He went in and closed the door behind him.

 

"You're back on rotation, right?"

 

"Right. Tim finished up with our little old lady from Pasadena. Next call is mine."

 

"Take Falsone with you."

 

Pembleton's cherished intention of teaching Bayliss a lesson by going out with someone else took immediate wings. "Falsone? Why should I take Falsone?"

 

"Lewis is on suspension, he's single."

 

"How's that my problem? I have a partner. Tall, myopic, lousy taste in ties, remember?"

 

Gee looked at him strangely. "Bayliss is on vacation. Found his leave form on my desk this morning. He's out of town for two weeks. Didn't you know?"

 

Too late to say yes and too galling to say no. Too, too galling to ask where. I'm going to kill him. "Then let me work alone. Falsone's forever taking off to see one shyster or another on some dispute with his ex. I'm not going to sit around twiddling my thumbs waiting for him."

 

"I have all the grief I need, Frank, my agita tells me my own people are leaving me twisting in the wind with this Mahoney fiasco, so don't give me any more. It's only temporary. For now, take Falsone. Looks like I'll soon have approval to transfer Stivers from Narco. For the rest of the time, you can pair with her. She's good and she's consistent." A phone rang outside. "You're up," Gee waved him away.

 

On his way out, Pembleton narrowly avoided running into Ballard who was speaking to Gharty over her shoulder instead of watching where she was going, headed for his desk and the bleating phone. I'm going to kill him. Not a word to me. Not a fucking word.

 

But there was one bright spot to this cursed day, sitting darkly on Gharty's face. Somewhere he'd found the misadventure he so richly deserved; it had left him with a lovely, black and blue shiner. Pembleton would've preferred putting it there, but still, it cheered him a little.

 

He picked up the phone. I won't kill him. "Homicide." I'll just make him sorry he's alive. "Pembleton."

 

He was hoping for a nice, all-involving redball. Instead, he got a domestic. A dunker, too, the guilty party having called it in personally and blabbered it all to the desk sergeant in gory detail.

 

By the time he jotted down the address and put the phone down, another thought had occurred to him. Bayliss' impromptu, none-of-Frank's-business vacation could be most happily attended by Chris Rawls. He grabbed his coat, passed by Falsone and headed out alone. The case was nothing more than paperwork. Who needed a partner for that? Who needed a partner for anything?

 

If he had only listened to his good sense six years ago, he wouldn't be asking that question, instead of trying so hard, now, not to answer it.

***

 

The first days of vacation with Jim, Shannon and their kids --now numbering four, one child growing out of diapers meaning time-for-a-new-one to them-- Bayliss had been sure he wanted to have kids of his own one day. It was the middle of the second week, their van finally back on the streets of Baltimore after the interminable stretches of I-95, and he was equally sure he'd sooner slit his throat. He'd change his mind again, he knew, as soon as he next saw Olivia, but for now, how many times could any sane person listen to Wheels on the bus go round and round and expect to stay sane?

 

"Uh, Jim, think you can turn the radio on and let us catch up on the news?" He might as well be coming back from Mars, for all he knew about what's been happening at home. One thing for sure, the trip had given him the distance he'd needed only to make him eager to reconnect to his real life.

 

Jim obligingly tuned the radio to an AM news station. "Hey, Teej, you have a few more days' leave left, right? What say we pick up dinner and you stay over tonight? We'll go to the gym tomorrow, shoot some hoops."

 

"Sounds good, but I can't, I'd better get back. I should put in some time at the bar. Munch and Meldrick must be ready to lynch me." He might also drop by the Zodiac. He'd called Chris to tell him he was on his way back.

 

"Oh, come on, it can wait until tomorrow night," Jim said, and the battle cry, "Come on, come on, come on," was taken up by all except the youngest who had fast learned to survive a large family and could sleep through anything.

 

"No, really, I think -- " the voice from the radio caught his attention.

 

The discovery of the body of Monsignor Bernard Jaeger in front of St. Germain's last night, it said, the second priest to be brutally murdered in the same week, has devastated the city's Catholic community. "Wait, hey, guys, hush up, I need to hear this." The first priest killing in Baltimore in more than a quarter of a century took place Tuesday. Father Michael Juneaux, Central City Vicar of the Diocese of Baltimore, was found bound and beaten, dead of multiple stab wounds, in the rectory of St. Raphael's, victim of an apparent robbery murder --

 

"Take me home, Jim. No, better yet, drop me off at work, I can change there." The redball must be big enough to choke the whole department; he belonged at his job. He'd have to call Chris again and tell him he'd be unavailable for a while longer. The newscaster was talking about the continuing search for two missing Guatemalan refugees earlier questioned by the police and released at the insistence of the Archdiocese and the CFCA. Gee must be chewing nails.

 

As he'd expected, he got to the squadroom and found that the shifts had merged. The place rivaled rush hour at Penn Station. He took a quick look at the board. Juneaux was under Ballard, and Jaeger was under Pembleton. Gee spotted him across the crowded room and made short work of him by pointing him toward the lockers, "You, decoy detail."

 

A desk jockey from O'Neil's squad had set up a table at the entrance to the lockers, laid the city map on it, and he was assigning priest-garbed officers to various locations. It had to be pretty bad, to come down to decoys. Munch was there, grousing as usual. "Doesn't anybody care my mother's spinning in her grave?" he was demanding of the world in general. "Look at me," he tugged at his white collar, squirming in the outfit as if it were a hairshirt, "Now there's an extra special place waiting for me in Jewish hell." He saw Bayliss and snapped at him, "Nice of you to join us."

 

"Where's Frank?"

 

"Ask Stivers."

 

"Narco's in this, too? Why, South American connection?"

 

"Huh? Oh, that's right, you've been missing in action. Stiver's one of us now and Frank's got her. If he has any sense, he'll keep her, too. Or is it only me partners dump on? Stan, Megan, poof, gone, Mike's a basket case, you and Meldrick are no help when it comes to that money drain across the street. Thank God for Billie Lou, but if this keeps up I'm gonna have to marry her so she won't fly off somewhere, too. Well, tell me," he asked the dispatcher, "where in this fair city should I lay my body down in its glorious service?"

 

"West side, Mc Henry and Gilmore."

 

"Lucky, lucky me." As he was leaving, he told Bayliss, "Just do me one favor, when they find my mutilated corpse, don't let my watch-the-profit-margin brother bury me in his cheapest coffin."

 

Bayliss had to go sign on the roster first, then got a quick run-down and his assignment. He didn't see the rationale in thinking a priest killer would look for a priest in the red light district, especially since both murders had taken place on church grounds. This had all the earmarks of Barnfather appeasing the Mayor that everything possible was being done, never mind anything probable. But his was not to question why. He found a pile of cassocks on a bench, shook them loose, chose the longest one and donned it.

 

Sitting in the van all day had stiffened his muscles. He was stretching them when he felt eyes boring into him and straightened up to see Pembleton standing in the aisle between the lockers and watching him coax his body back into flexibility. "Oh, there you are." Frank would've made one hell of an impressive priest, it dawned on him, seeing him outfitted as one. Not today, back in the days of the Inquisition, when severity had been valued over serenity. "Hi."

 

Pembleton asked blandly, "Busy vacation?"

 

"Well, yeah, it was, but -- "

 

"But good and busy."

.

"That, too, I did have a good -- " Suddenly, it registered. Not that long ago he'd heard Frank put another question like that: Busy night? Good and busy? What the hell had Frank been thinking, that he was on a honeymoon? "It was a family vacation, Frank. Jim was taking his family on a vacation and I went along. I was at Disney World, for cryin' out loud."

 

"Disney World?" Said as if he were trying out a novel flavor on his tongue.

 

"Yeah, it was great. You gotta take Mary and the kids."

 

"Oh, sure, and here I was, wondering what I could possibly do to make my life complete." He hadn't liked the taste, what a surprise, but he seemed to like Timothy Bayliss much better all of a sudden. "I can see it actually, you in the never-never land. So why did you come back early?"

 

"I figured Captain Hook, you, what's the difference, I'm for the plank either case, better the devil. I got presents for Olivia and Frank Jr., but I'll have to bring them later. I left them in Jim's van."

 

"Any chance of leaving them there permanently?"

 

"None."

 

"I didn't think so." He shrugged, his smile denying his grumble. "Ready to go?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"Me, too. Had a cup of coffee, I'm good for another night."

 

"A cup of -- ! When did you start that again? Frank!"

 

"Since I started round-the-clock shifts, and don't you start in on me. Climb off that Wonderful World cloud, scratch out your dues down in the dirt with the rest of us, and then maybe I'll listen to what you have to say. 'Till then, let's go, let's go."

 

"I'm not gonna argue with you, bunk, you'll lay off or I'm telling Mary. By the way, how come you noticed I came back early? Counting the days?"

 

"No, counting my blessings, but here you are yapping at me again. They must've run out."

 

"You're full of it, Frank."

 

"Move your ass, Bayliss. Time and crime wait for no murder cop."

***

 

The two cornerboys had been sent to lock-up after dual-track interrogations netting one confession and one denial, up to Danvers to sort out the rest. The INS agent had taken away the two young Guatemalans, dogged by Sister Atwood breathing down his neck for a change. Barnfather was escorting out the representatives from the Archdiocese, and he'd handle the media, one more rung on his climb up the city's hierarchy; the only burr in his tail must be the lateness of the hour for prime-time news. Long nights, little sleep, hardly anybody had been able to go home for days, but it was over. Finally.

 

"Good work," Gee stood like a benevolent deity at the door to his office and beamed at the whole squad. "Now get out here, all of you, go reintroduce yourselves to your wives, husbands, significant others--"

 

Out of the corner of his eye Bayliss saw Gharty give a start. He barely contained his own start, having never heard their lieutenant put it that way before. Well, Gee had very big ears. And his own way of getting messages across. No big deal and nobody better force me to make it one, seemed to be his decree.

 

"--kiss your kids, pet the dog, get enough sleep to reset your biological clocks," Gee continued. "So tomorrow you can make me happy again with another good day's work. 'Night, everybody."

 

About time, too. Along with the case, Bayliss had also put in a late night duty at the bar. He picked up his coat, planning on a quick trip to the grocery store, and a night of catching up on bills, dust and laundry.

 

"Hey, Tim," Pembleton called out, "About that dinner invitation."

 

Bayliss waited but Frank effortlessly out-waited him. "What dinner invitation?"

 

"When you invited me to have dinner with you."

 

"Uh…?" Bayliss realized he'd frozen with one arm halfway through a coat sleeve and completed the move. "When?"

 

"I asked you to my house, I cooked you dinner. To reciprocate, you invited me to have dinner at your place, remember?"

 

And Frank accused him of having too long a memory? Frank’s memory was conveniently selective, too. He’d merely heated the food Mary had cooked and left in the freezer, but no way was he reminding his partner that the man had been so desperately alone in the house deserted by Mary and Olivia that he’d have asked the corner mailbox to dinner. Their own partnership had been on the rocks at the time, too, until Mary had paid him a covert visit, to ask him to take Frank back as his partner, please, because now she was leaving him. Something he’d never told and would never tell Frank. "Yeah, okay," he warily ventured, "Yes, I remember that."

 

"So," Pembleton asked cheerfully, "Is the invitation still good?"

 

Bayliss' mouth dropped open. That was a year ago and Frank had nipped Bayliss’ reciprocation effort in its daring bud with a single, curt: No. Of course, pointing that out now would bring about a searing lecture that would, somehow, make it all his fault. He closed his mouth and cleared his throat, "I have to make a run at the grocery store, but yeah, sure, it’s still good."

 

"We can stop off, no problem. That way I'll make sure you'll get what I like. Let's get it straight right now, I'm not eating TV dinners." Having settled the issue to his satisfaction, he completed buttoning himself neatly into his dapper coat. He tucked in his flamboyant red scarf, set his hat with the bright blue feather at just the right angle, walked past Bayliss who was still standing there with his own coat hanging forgotten off one arm, turned around and snapped his fingers impatiently, "Come on, Timmy, come on. Tonight, if you don’t mind."

***

 

Bayliss, his suit quickly exchanged for a plaid shirt and draw-string pants, put two bottles of the Natty Bo in the refrigerator to keep them cool --he'd had a stroke of inspiration as they'd left work: Waterfront, right across the street with its handy supply of hot food and cold beer-- opened the other two and carried them to the table. Frank, minus his coat, jacket, and holster, was standing by the table, glaring down at the containers of food, which he abandoned in favor of glaring up at him. "After all these years I'm finally here having dinner with you and you're going to feed me out of styrofoam?"

 

Oh. Bayliss quickly pulled back the bottles he'd been about to put down, before Frank could take further umbrage at the his failure in providing glasses. He went back into the kitchen for proper dinnerware. "Did you phone Mary?" he called out.

 

"No."

 

"You should."

 

"Why?"

 

He carried the plates and the utensils to the table. "To tell her you won't be home for dinner," he spelled out, wondering why his partner was being obtuse.

 

"I haven't been home for dinner for over a week. She doesn't know the case is wrapped up; she's not expecting me."

 

Perhaps he should've stayed out of it. "Okay. You know best."

 

"Besides, last time I went home, she wasn't exactly thrilled to see me."

 

Oh, dear. They may have had a fight. He definitely should've stayed out of it. Silently, he arranged the table to what he hoped was his partner's satisfaction.

 

"I love my kids," Pembleton snapped, "but I don't love how they've opened the door wide to the Whelans. They're in and out all the time anyway, and every time I've got a redball going lately, there they are, staying over under the pretext of helping out Mary."

 

No wonder he was so unyearning for hearth and home this night. Napkins. Frank would definitely want napkins. He went to search the drawers.

 

"It wasn't like I was being offensive on purpose," on a roll, Pembleton was continuing. "I'd been on the job around the clock for days; I didn't have anything clean left in my locker, so I dropped by my house to see my wife and my kids for a few minutes and to pick up a change of clothes, that's all. I didn't dress up like a priest to play trick-or-treat on the Whelans. By their outrage, you'd think I'd personally hammered Christ to the cross."

 

As he returned with napkins --proud he'd found the cloth ones and they were spotless-- it suddenly dawned on Bayliss that his partner's comment in the locker room --Could've been worse, we could've been decoyed as nuns-- may have had a whole different impetus than the one he'd assigned to it and not liked. He went back to the kitchen for glasses, brought them to the table and said in conciliatory tones, "They're older, conservative people, Frank. Mary understands your job."

 

"Yeah, well, she doesn't understand how I can be blasphemous at any time, let alone when I'm garbed like a priest. It isn't like I am one, is it? But pointing that out to her parents, and explaining I wasn't getting my jollies but goddamned well trying to catch a priest killer, didn't endear me to her somehow."

 

Salt and pepper? Yeah, right there on the counter. "Maybe you shouldn't have said goddamned."

 

"Maybe. But there are things I don't understand either. Like why I should accept disapproval in my own home -- so, tell me, are you ever going to stop fiddling with that table and get around to feeding me?"

 

With Frank, he never could win for losing. Good thing he was used to it.

 

The dinner was a quiet affair, Pembleton scowling balefully at each forkful then chewing on it as if shredding a personal grudge. "What's bothering you?" Bayliss finally asked. Something more than his usual ire toward his inconvenient in-laws had wound him up tight tonight.

 

For the longest time, he thought Frank wasn't going to answer. Then, garrulously, "Why did he have to go and say he enjoyed it?"

 

"Who enjoyed what?"

 

"I lock him up with the corpses in the morgue's meat locker, I let him out after he's a gibbering wreck, drag him to an isolated spot by the bay, pull a gun and threaten to kill him, and the stupid yo damn near thanks me."

 

Ballard and Pembleton had been the primaries; Bayliss hadn't been privy to much. He'd seen them leave the squadroom, Frank towing Roc-Roc away with a grip on his collar, and return in the morning with enough information to round up the killers. Now he knew what had transpired through the night. "For the meat locker or the death threat?"

 

"No, for showing him the bay in the process of the death threat. He couldn't even identify it, thought it was the ocean. Tell me, how strong a cage are those streets out there -- our streets? How does a seventeen-year-old grow up in this city and not once see a blue patch of all that water? What else is within his reach except he can't look past his hell and see it?"

 

Bayliss stayed quiet and let him get it out. He'd learned early that Pembleton ranted about things he knew couldn't be fixed and offering him platitudes only made him angrier. He simply wanted someone to shut up and listen.

 

"Not that it matters, you know. He's got something decent inside that can be touched, by the face of an old man, so he chooses not to kill, by the morning breaking over the bay, so he forgets he can be killed. He didn't turn in his homies because he was scared of me, he recognized a right when he saw it. The boy calls himself Roc-Roc, but he has a soft middle. All that means, of course, he already has a ticket on the meat wagon." As if it was choking him, Frank yanked the knot loose from his tie, impatiently unbuttoned his collar. "He'll be a chalk outline on the pavement before he sees the bay again. No survival value in it, but for some reason, for some audacious reason, he can look at a cop who'd been kicking his ass to hell and back all night, smile at him and say he enjoyed being shown something he hadn't seen before." He shoved away his plate. "Sometimes I hate this city." He picked up his glass, drained it, put it back down forcefully, aimed his eyes across the table and asked in his casual-as-a-hangman's-rope voice:

 

"So, this Rawls, what does he do for you?"

 

Bayliss almost choked on his beer. He managed to swallow and say past it, "Jeez, Frank."

 

"Not that. Any idiot can do that."

 

Why does every conversation with you has to turn into interrogation under duress? Bayliss looked down, at the way the ceiling light splayed through the amber depths of his beer. "He takes it easy on me."

 

"He takes -- ?" a derisive snort, "That's it?"

 

Bayliss took another swallow from his glass, said nothing. Anything he said would be used against him.

 

"Don't be silly," Frank snapped. "You don't want anybody taking it easy on you."

 

Irritated anew with Frank's habit of tossing out blithe assumptions about him, he couldn't bite back the retort, "How do you know what I want, Frank?" Oh, no, he shouldn't have said that. As Frank put his elbows on the table, leaned in and set to dissect his brain, he knew he shouldn't have said that.

 

"Let's see, how do I know what you want? Let's look at the evidence. You bow and scrape on the mayor's detail so you can get into the hardest job in the department. You say if you don't make it there, you don't want to make it anywhere. First day, you hang yourself around my neck and don't tell me you did that because you want life to go easy on you. You get your first case and you lash yourself harder than anybody else can. To this day Adena's file is under your hand and you refuse to give yourself a break and forget about her. Araber's dead, but if you thought you could get one more word out of him you'd dig him up with your teeth. An undertaker confesses killing his neighbor, case closed, but that's too convenient for you, you have to go digging until you know why. A prison riot breaks out, a body falls in the middle of it, so what? One felon's whacked another and saved the county some money, and everybody's happy -- except you. You won't stay ordered off the case. You risk Gee's wrath to keep investigating until you pin down the killer. Now tell me again you're interested in easy. I'm used to hearing lame lies across a table, so go on, tell me."

 

"Dammit, that's just the job -- and this is not the box, so get off my back."

 

"Quit whining. If memory serves, I didn't invite you into the box, that box or my box, you pushed your way in. It's too late to get squeamish about my style now. You asked a question, I answered it. Answer mine."

 

"I told you, that's just the job. I do have a life outside it -- all right, maybe I don't," he backtracked quickly before Frank could pounce again, "but I want one, I'm trying to get one."

 

"Oh, yeah, I've seen you look. You once thought you found it in a coffin, didn't you? You're the man who'd sit in DeMoines and yearn for an eskimo, remember that one? Now you've decided, okay, you'll go to the edge of the left field and see what lies beyond it. It's a fool's errand, Tim -- look at me! There're no answers at the bottom of that glass," he reached to take Bayliss' beer out of his hand and put it to one side, "I'm talking to you."

 

"You're not talking to me. Hell, you're not even interrogating me. You're trying me. What do you want, Frank, my soul? Why? Obviously you don't think it's worth much."

 

"I don't waste my time on the worthless. It pisses me off that you do. I'm not into dispensing placebos, you know that, so here it goes: it's down to two possibilities, Tim," pronouncing his words with their edges sharpened individually. "Either you don't know what you want, or everything else is too easy and you want the impossible," the kind of words that aimed to pierce through brain and flesh. "Which is it? Do you even know?"

 

Bayliss couldn't take it anymore. "You don't know what you're talking about," he raised his voice in protest. "You're lucky, you have no idea how lonely it can get. You met someone early on, your heart, your mind, and your dick agreed. More importantly, Mary agreed. For me, two out of three isn't bad, hell, it's downright fantastic, 'cause you see, nobody has ever agreed to me before --before Chris. What's wrong with him? He's kind, he's funny, he's beautiful -- what's so wrong with him?"

 

Frank threw open his arms in an exasperated move. "As far as I know, not a thing. Stop trying to make it about him; it isn't. Or why would I waste my breath?"

 

"I don't know what you're getting at."

 

"You don't? Look, if you'd told me, hey, he's great, he gives these world class blow jobs, I'd say enjoy every thrilling minute until you get your fill. But listen to what you're telling me. You're trying to fashion something out of him to fill up all your needs and you know he's not enough. You just told me so yourself." Abruptly, he shoved his chair back to rise. He rounded the table, approached, placed his index finger in between Tim's eyes like the muzzle of a gun, placed his words like accurate bullets, "You've managed to come up with enough reasons to get this to agree." He reached toward to Tim's groin but didn't actually touch, "obviously the simple mechanism there didn't hold back its agreement. But this," his hand came up, fingers splayed, pressed to Tim's chest, "you can't get this to go along, can you? You. Don't. Love. Him."

 

The warmth of his palm passed through flannel and cotton and into flesh, and Tim suddenly wanted to close his eyes, throw his head back and moan. He did none of them, but the man who'd made it his life's business to reach into the darkness and pull out the truth was looking down at him from only ten inches away. Frank took a sharp breath and held it, then, alongside his exhaled breath, "You don't love him."

 

There was a brief interval when, with disbelief as his ally, he could've salvaged it. But Frank was the verbally privileged one, not Tim, and he sat there with dumb silence between his teeth for a second too long until it was a second too late.

 

Soft as a whispered midnight conspiracy, Frank asked "Who do you love, Tim?"

 

 

Everything else seems beyond us

we aren't ready for it, nothing that was said

is true for us, caught naked in the argument,

the counterpoint, trying to sight read

what our fingers can't keep up with, learn by heart

what we can't even read.

 

…there are no prodigies

in this realm, only a half-blind, stubborn

cleaving to the timbre, the tones of what we are

--even when all the texts describe it differently.

 

"The Dream of a Common Language"

Adrienne Rich

 

End of Part 2

~*~*~

 

Part 3

 

The rules break like a thermometer,

quicksilver spills across the charted systems,

we're out in a country that has no language

no laws,

whatever we do together is pure invention

the maps they gave us were out of date by years.

 

"Twenty-One Love Poems"

Adrienne Rich

 

 

"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 inside his 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's not." 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 it is." Come on, tell the truth.

 

Tim said nothing.

 

"Tell me."

 

Nothing.

 

You foolish idiot. It's my specialty, breaking through silence, cutting through bullshit -- I am 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 it this 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 -- Stop that!

 

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, I knew 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.

 

"Right now."

 

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.

 

"Of course."

 

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 about him? "No. No, not him."

 

"Oh -- oh, God…"

 

"Did he?"

 

"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 was the 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 new otherness, 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 --

 

Frank?!

 

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 -- so there. 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.

 

Christ!

 

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.

 

Did 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 this your 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 everything he 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 you are 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, something uncreated. 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 enough. 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 did so 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.

 

"Frank…?"

 

A single utterance of his name burdened with so much uncertainty that he realized Bayliss didn't have a compass, either. Not for him. 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. I want 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. We do 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 they were 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 the intensity." 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 of that 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 he hated 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."

 

"Let go, 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."

 

"Please, Frank?"

 

"I do 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 said help me. So he scooted back, bowed his head and gave Tim his mouth. Some things were done simply because not doing them was unthinkable.

 

"Not now, 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 completely entire. 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."

 

"I know."

 

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, you did 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, what can't you say?"

 

"How do you know 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.

 

"Frank?"

 

"Hmm?" He was almost asleep, dammit.

 

"You're heavy."

 

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.

 

"With coffee."

 

"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. You are 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. "All I 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," it had 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."

 

"Yeah."

 

"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 --he still 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 go there.

 

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 did not 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."

 

"You won," she squealed, gathering her coat, "How wonderful! Let's go have that dinner."

 

"Actually, I lost."

 

"What?"

 

"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.

 

"Go home, 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 for his 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 was their 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 see you 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. I still don't care, he let his face say.

 

"Yeah," Kellerman looked away, mumbled, "But she's gone."

 

"Who?"

 

"Julianna."

 

"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, "They fired 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 to me."

 

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 you want 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 are these, 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 if it had the right of claim. "I see. So you got the one you've been wanting all along."

 

"Huh?"

 

"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 surprised he 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 hurt him? "I wouldn't breathe a word of it, what makes you think I can be that vindictive?"

 

"I don'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 it releases 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?"

 

"Are you 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, I am sorry." Less an apology than stating his truth.

 

"It's okay, just -- " muffled, " -- turn the light out."

 

The better to see him 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."

 

"Okay."

 

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 they are 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 in his hands, the photos limp from being enclosed by plastic, faintly sticky to his fingers from --

 

Old photos do 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, the special 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.

 

Too late.

 

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…just don't."

 

"But…but why?"

 

"Why don't you 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, he believes 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, it was 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, and his 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's go, 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 is not 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 know exactly 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. "Do you 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, we all 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's exactly 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 get you," 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 if he 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 you deliver 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, can you 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 survived Jim, 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 to my 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. I had 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."

 

"Why not?"

 

"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. I do -- "

 

"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"

Adrienne Rich

 

 

End of Part 3

~*~*~

 

Epilogue

 

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.

 

"Two Songs"

Adrienne Rich

 

 

…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 you really 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."

 

For me, Tim knew he meant. "Get me ready."

 

"I didn't mean right now."

 

"I do. Now."

 

"Tim, please -- "

 

"Now."

 

"Are you sure?"

 

"Yes."

 

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

 

"Tear Gas"

Adrienne Rich

 

 

…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 -- I know that smell.

 

Air stilled. Stone and mortar, steel and glass held their breath for an instant…

 

Smells like death.

 

…and exploded.

 

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.

 

"Stepping Backwards"

Adrienne Rich

 

the end

 

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