Actions

Work Header

Little Murders

Work Text:

Two months after Bud and Lynn take off to Arizona, Ed drives into the desert on a two-line highway, out toward the ass end of nowhere in the blinding white heat. It's simple impulse that seizes him and moves him forward, though he has no sense of purpose, no idea what he'll say when he gets there. No idea what he'll do.

He's well across the state line when he pulls over and sits there a while, fingers curled loose around the bottom curve of the wheel. The engine idles low and rough. Sun hits the asphalt road and comes back up in waves of illusion, moving the end of the road closer like a soft lake to dive into. Cars pass by, not often, not many, and none of them slow down.

There's no explanation he can think of for why he's headed east, or what he'll do when he gets there. Or rather, there's no defined purpose, because definitions require self-examination, and Ed is not willing to focus that lens. Not now. A trip into the desert is one thing. Arriving, something else entirely.

Eventually he swings the car around and heads back the way he came.

**

Jack Vincennes pays Ed a visit one Sunday night, six months after the aborted road trip. Ed finds Jack sitting by a pool, wearing some godawful combination of Hawaiian shirt under a cream-colored blazer, white linen pants and penny loafers. That's how Ed knows it's not really Jack; Jack wouldn't be caught dead, much less alive, sporting such poor sartorial choices.

"Hey, Exley." Vincennes pulls his sunglasses off and gives Ed a knowing smile. "You remember when I told you White'd fuck you if it took him the rest of his life?"

Ed looks around. There's a stack of newspapers on the diving board as tall as Ed is, blood dripping from the ruffled column. When he turns back to Vincennes, he can see a hole through Jack's shirt, the uneven edges singed dark. There's nothing beyond it, no skin or bone, only empty air. "I remember."

"So?" Jack raises his eyebrows. "Did he?"

Ed wakes up, a raft of case reports sliding from his lap onto his living room carpet. He sits for a long time in the dark, staring at the test pattern on the television as it fades to static, then sharpens clear again.

Finally he picks up the phone and tells the long distance operator, "Wendell White, Bisbee, Arizona; the number is 8865."

It's not much of a surprise to find the number's disconnected, nothing but dead space out there in the last place Bud White was known to be.

After that, Jack Vincennes leaves Ed alone, for a while.

**

Ed hears it first from the men in Homicide, or more precisely, he overhears it while he's standing in the hallway making political small talk. It's one of a number of routine tasks he checks off his list each day.

"Yeah, how about that?" Officer Cooper cracks a big grin and takes a sip of his coffee. "Never thought I'd run into Bud White on a case. Still as mean as a striped snake, too."

"Guess it figures, some." Detective Fraser shrugs. "Fucked up like he was, no way he comes back on the force."

"No sign of that hooker he shacked up with, either, or so the boys down there tell me." Cooper stretches, clears his throat.

Ed doesn't wait to hear more.

He asks the appropriate questions, and the answers lead him to Royal Hotel off Rossmore. The clerk is as helpful as might be expected when an LAPD lieutenant comes to her office, and she provides a key without comment, though she gives Ed the kind of disapproving look that declares her doubt about his motives.

Once it would have sickened Ed to prove her right, but no longer. He seizes advantage of Bud's absence to search his room top to bottom. He finds no liquor, no books, no amusements of any sort. Bud's clothes are hung in the closet, shirts askew and ties draped over the bar. The wilted shape of his jackets says he has moved away from the habit of suit and tie every day. Two pairs of scuffed shoes - one black, one brown - and six pairs of rolled socks inhabit the closet floor.

There are no elegant satin pumps, no silk dresses, no edges of frilly lace or stockings tossed careless on a chair. No detritus from a life uprooted and yet to be settled again.

On the chest of drawers, he finds bent collar stays, a crumpled receipt from Nancy's Diner, a pencil stub, and a torn piece of paper with a man's name and an address. The wastebasket gives him the remnants of a meatloaf sandwich and an empty can of shoe black. Nothing gives Ed a picture of where Bud's been or where he might go next.

Nothing tells him why Lynn is still in Arizona, her gentle touch absent from this place.

He can't extract answers from the empty room, so he waits for Bud to return from whatever job he's taken. When the door creaks open, Ed's shoulders straighten, and he presses the room key into his kneecap, holding tight.

Bud enters rooms with his whole body, taking charge of the space with silent authority. It's a fraction of a second before he realizes he has a visitor. His hand slides beneath his jacket, his finger around the trigger of the revolver Ed knows is there, where it should be. Bud's chin tilts up and his stare rests hard on Ed's face, as if the idea of him is hard to call up from the past.

All Ed can see is the scar on Bud's cheek, pink but fading to a round pale moon of remembered pain.

It takes Bud a couple seconds to glance around the room and see that Ed's alone. Only then does his hand fall away from the gun. He shuts the door, which creaks and rattles in an ill-fitting frame.

They watch each other in the dim light, Bud's eyes glittering.

"You in the habit of breaking and entering now, Detective Lieutenant?"

"I've developed a taste for expediency." Ed throws the key Bud's direction; Bud snatches it out of the air and tucks it into his front jacket pocket.

Ed looks him over head to toe. No hat, rumpled coat. Knuckles sporting two sets of bruises, one fresh, one half-healed.

"You look starched," Bud says, taking in all of Ed with an equally sweeping look. Ed feels that the pressed pants, the crisp-pleated shirt, are somehow the wrong set of armor for this encounter.

"You look...unencumbered."

Bud shrugs off his coat and sits on the edge of the bed. His holster stands out stark against the white T-shirt. "She was good for me, but I wasn't good for her."

"How's that?"

"I break things," Bud says. Ed finds his gaze drawn to Bud's bruised hands, which are open, relaxed, curled over his thighs.

"Not her." Not quite a question.

"No." Bud looks away. "But you know me. It was just a matter of time."

Ed doesn't know Bud, not really. He knows the champion of damaged women who lashes out when they damage him; he knows the cop who would throw his life away for a man who means less than nothing to him. He knows how easy it is to form a bond with that kind of man. How easy it is to picture a partnership based on a simple code of honor.

All this, he doesn't say. Instead: "How long have you been back?"

"I'm starting to remember my way around." Bud pulls a wad of cash from his pants pocket, along with a couple spare bullets and two matchbooks, and scatters them across the hills and valleys of the bedspread. The stale stench of old perfume wafts toward Ed, carried on Bud's skin.

"Your talents are going to waste."

Bud smiles, a half-assed effort that doesn't get near his eyes. "I get by."

"Hustling for PI work?"

"It pays."

"So do I." Ed fishes out the set of mimeographed documents from his jacket pocket and tosses them to Bud. "If you think you can spare the time."

Bud unfolds the neatly creased papers. It's a typical LA story: young girl found in a ditch, an open suitcase beside her still half-filled with the remnants of the life she'd been running from somewhere back east. Bud reads through the sparse packet with what passes for interest, his sharp eyes connecting invisible dots in a path Ed has already traced.

There's a drop of blood on the front of Bud's t-shirt, a crimson window into his life.

"You haven't changed," Ed says. For every drop of blood carried away as a souvenir, many more are spattered on a wall, on a piece of pavement; somewhere, someone is paying the price for standing in Bud's way.

"No, I haven't." Bud glances up. "But you have."

There are thousand ways Ed could take that, but he picks the one Bud means. Once upon a time in Hollywood, Ed was selective about which lines he'd cross, and which he'd ignore. Back then he stayed out of the sewers by choice; now he stays out because he's night-blind.

There are cures for that kind of darkness. "What's the going rate these days?"

One corner of Bud's mouth curls up grudgingly. "I come cheap. Even a detective who's not on the take can afford my services."

"Good of you to assume."

"Like me, some things don't change." Bud sets the papers on the bed. "When do we get started?"

"As soon as you've showered and found a fresh shirt." Ed brushes his hand across his chest, and Bud looks down at his own in turn, picking at the spot of dried blood the way other men swat flies.

Ed doesn't excuse himself while Bud toes off his shoes, throws his socks in the corner. He doesn't look away when Bud peels off his holster and then his shirt. He wants to see the damage; he never had the chance, before. Raw tissue has twisted and curled around the places where the bullets tore into Bud, protective of its territory. Bud stands there and lets him look, and Ed's breath comes faster when Bud unbuckles his belt, pulling it slowly from the belt loops.

Ed's still sitting there when Bud pushes the bathroom door half closed, and when he starts the shower, and when the scent of pennies-on-the-dollar motel soap fills the steamy air.

It's true, Bud breaks things, but some things were already broken before Bud put his hands on them. Ed takes a shuddering breath and looks away from the open door.

**

They work the case, though Ed doesn't need the help. He has detectives now who aren't on the take, who can find a hole in the ground without the happy accident of falling into it first. He knows he should wait to use Bud's particular talents on a real case, something which requires brute force or a willingness to dive into the hole and come up muddy.

Bud surely knows it too, because there's a light of good sense beneath that thuggish temper. But he says nothing, and together they hit the streets, traversing the divide between sunshine and darkness with an ease Ed has only known once before -- that night at the Victory Motel. He has rarely felt on the path of the righteous since then. With Bud at his side, he knows the way.

It takes two hours of canvassing and reconnaissance to find the pimp, ten minutes more for Bud to make clear his situation while Ed asks the questions. Only three questions: the murdered girl's name, the pimp's address, and how many other girls are holed up there. The pimp is the high side of thirty, dressed in a cheap suit and driving a shined-up Olds, and he squeaks like a virgin at her first prom when Bud's fingers close around his throat.

It's another hour to find the girls and hand them over to social services. One is so young, Ed's stomach turns to see her eyeing him like the price of her next meal. Bud gives that one ten bucks, because he is everything Ed expects him to be.

Ten minutes after that they are back at Bud's motel, and Ed doesn't mean to go in. He means to drive on; he means to pay Bud, or to ask him why he never came back, why being a cop is no good for him anymore. Why he left Lynn in the desert, when there are so few moments a man might count as worth having in his short, miserable life. Why Lynn's happy ending wasn't good enough for a cop who left everything behind.

He means to do a great number of things, all of them in service to a greater good, but instead he sits on a tilting chair covered in yellow fabric and pretends he still has business here.

Bud only lets him pretend for five minutes.

"Sorry I'm not set up for social hour," Bud says. He gestures at the room the way a millionaire points to a mansion: dismissive of an accustomed way of life.

"I tried to call once," Ed says. Better not to mention the unsent letters and sleepless nights, the aborted aimless drive into the desert.

"Was that before or after Lynn sent the last postcard?"

In his mind's eye, Ed sees them face-down in a stack on his kitchen table. Eleven identical postcards, the kind of cheap souvenir a man might buy at the counter of the five and dime on his way through a small town and then send to his kids. Or perhaps the kind of thing a desperate woman picks up to scribble on, when her need to get through is too great to tolerate fancy stationary and the time spent on polite trivialities.

Come soon, they had said, in the uneven blank spaces between the mundane words about dresses and sunshine and lives which refused to merge. Come now.

"I wasn't sure," Ed begins, and then stops, because there were no questions asked, no invitations given. But they had summoned him all the same. Or at least, Lynn had - why, he still doesn't know.

Bud's fingertips pass over the scar on his face. "She wasted her time with me."

"I think she'd see it differently."

"Yeah? You should call and ask her. Or is that not how detectives do things these days? No sense going to the source when you can fill in the gaps with guesswork." Bitterness seeps like poison into the words, and it sounds like an accusation.

An image passes through Ed's mind: a bloodless wound to Jack Vincennes' chest, and his words lingering in the empty space of a dream.

Words scrawled on a dog-eared postcard: I still can't quite make myself believe in happy endings. Bud thinks I worry too much.

It's hot here. So much sunshine. I think Bud misses the ocean. He's like a rootless flower here. Not enough rain.

They'd been partners of necessity for less than a day. Ed could still remember the smell of Bud's blood, feel the strength of his hand.

More than that - there was the thing he didn't think about: the way Lynn's body had yielded to him, all the private spaces where Bud had been reshaping themselves to Ed -- overlap, continuum, destruction.

They hadn't been made to fit then, and it's even worse now. Ed is all edges made sharp by neglect, and Bud is fractured glass glued back with an unsteady hand, but it doesn't matter. They're no good for anyone, for anything, except each other.

"Things were clear enough," Bud says. "When you didn't come."

"I didn't come because I thought you had what you needed." It's a half-truth, but like so much else in Ed's life, it's as close as he can get to the center without coming undone.

"I needed you - needed," Bud says. He says the word like a hot needle striking the last mark on a fresh tattoo.

"And Lynn? What did she need?"

"She deserved better than to be stuck with what she needed."

Ed remembers Lynn's hopeful eyes, and the way Bud couldn't turn away from what was behind him when she drove him toward the future. "I couldn't be the cure for your problem."

"But you want me to be the cure to yours."

It's the singular way he says it that ends things, in Ed's mind - his own problem, never Bud's, no matter what he thought he knew. Now he knows better.

Ed stands without having decided he's going and makes his way to the door, but Bud is in the way. Bud is always in the way, whether there are roads and miles between them, or just two feet of torn brown carpet. Ed expects violence because it's what he has learned to expect. It's their common language, one Bud was born speaking while Ed floundered with the nuances.

Instead Bud puts his back firmly against the door, and then he unzips Ed's fly and takes Ed's cock into his hot, angry mouth.

Ed's fingers slide through Bud's short hair, pressing against his scalp, and Bud just takes him deeper, one hand holding him in place against the door.

When it's over, and the blind rush of ecstasy has subsided into a quiet thrum, Bud gets a warm beer from the six-pack on the nightstand and sits down on the bed. Ed falls to his knees, the carpet still warm from where Bud knelt before him. His hands twitch against his thighs, in search of something to hold onto.

The world shifts and reshapes itself into something Ed once imagined, but never dared make real.

"What is it with you?" Bud takes a pull from his beer, body a hard line against the brown chenille bedspread. "You never did have enough sense to be scared when you should be."

"Oh, I did," Ed said softly. "But what good is fear, really? It only stands in the way of progress."

Bud sighs and chugs half the beer, then offers the bottle to Ed. Alcohol is the last thing Ed wants, so he shakes his head and looks away. The door looms large behind him.

Bud sits up, pulls off his shirt and undershirt, and tosses them to the side, a gauntlet at Ed's feet.

When Ed stands, his legs are steady, and his fingers confident as he slips off his tie, works his way through the buttons of his shirt. This time Bud watches, breath coming faster, loud in the tiny room. Ed throws the chain on the door.

"That won't stop anyone who comes here looking for me." Bud slips off his holster and sets it within reach, gun still cradled inside.

"Your choices limit your odds."

Bud's exasperated smile reaches his eyes this time. He gets off the bed and yanks Ed forward, tearing off the rest of his department store suit in increments. "So do yours," he whispers, his mouth tender at the skin beneath Ed's ear.

In his dreams it's Bud's wide-open eyes staring up from the ditch, and Jack Vincennes' clucking tongue, should have known it would end up this way, Exley. Ed thinks of all the men Bud has broken, all the little murders gone quiet and still in the cold case files without someone to remember them. All the chances Bud will take, and all the shit that can go sideways.

Bud's fingers trace a bruise on his hip, then ghost across the scar on his shoulder.

"There are no happy endings," Bud says, as he presses against Ed's body to take what he wants. What Ed wants to give; desire shivers up from his skin like heat in the noonday desert.

Between them it's the hunt for death, it's violence and lust, and when those things are set aside, they are quiet together. In the darkness of night, Ed's dreams unfold, where Ed can pretend Bud is wrong about how all things inevitably end.