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Mexico City

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I went to Mexico because I had to. I'd done an honest job for a client who thought he was paying me for a crooked one. The client was first-names friendly with the chief of police, and suddenly my driving, my gun, my attitude, and the shape of my nose were offensive to every cop in Los Angeles. It was time for a vacation, and Mexico City was cheap.

All very reasonable. Except for the way I kept going over it in my mind during the long drive, like a crook who knows he'll need an alibi.

The weather was cooler and clearer than at home, so during the day I played tourist. At night I drank at the Europa, one of those big hotels that are exactly the same everywhere in the world. The bar looked like an overexcitable choirboy's idea of a French brothel. Everything was covered in burgundy velvet, including the bartender. Mine were probably the cheapest shoes that had ever touched the marble floor.

About a week into this routine, I was taking my first sip--the hopeful sip--of another overwatered whiskey and tonic when he came in. I wasn't even facing the door, but I knew immediately. Maybe I recognized the sound of his footsteps.

"Gimlet, please, Ramiro," he said, and sat across from me at the fancy little teakwood table.

"Señor Maioranos," I said. "It's been a while."

"It's Martin Sullivan now." He smiled. He'd shaved off his mustache, and his hair was the sandy brown it probably used to be before the war. He was wearing a beautiful off-white linen suit. "I can pass for Mexican in Los Angeles, but not here."

"So what do you pass for here, Mr. Sullivan?"

He smiled, first at me and then at the handsome, soft-eyed waiter who brought his drink. I was willing to bet it was made perfectly, with gin from the good bottle kept out of sight. Even the glass looked cleaner than mine. Everybody liked Terry Lennox.

"Cheers," Terry said, dropping the r like the English do. After he drank, he put his glass down carefully on the coaster and wiped away a drop of condensation that had fallen on the marquetry tabletop. The wood showed generations of ring-shaped stains left by careless drinkers. "You look tired, Marlowe."

"You don't. Must be the benefit of a clear conscience."

"You shouldn't stoop to sarcasm. But you're right. I've been sleeping well."

"Congratulations." And then we were silent. I crept my way through that bad whiskey like Mithridates with his poison, and I remembered how eight months ago I'd sat waiting for Terry to come back and fix things between us. Sat waiting while he walked along the hall and took the elevator down and went out to the street and got in his car and drove and drove until he was in another country.

"Come on," Terry said, and put his glass down with finality. There was still a finger's breadth of liquid in it. "We can't talk here."

"I've got nothing to say."

He lifted one eyebrow, elegantly. I wondered if he'd copied a movie star to get the trick of it. "You checked into your hotel under the name Terry Lennox. It wasn't a long jump to the conclusion that you were looking for me."

"Maybe I was overcome with nostalgia."

"You're not even very good at sarcasm." He stood up, and the scent he was wearing drifted over me. It was sharper than the one I'd noticed on him that last day, bright with citrus peel and spices, and nothing at all like a woman's perfume. "I've got things to say, if you haven't. Please."

It was the please that levered me out of my chair and dragged me through the lobby at his side. There was no charm in it. It was flat, plain, a little irritable and wholly unguarded.

The central streets were more crowded than the Europa had been, crammed with Parisian gowns and Saville row suits on their way to be admired in nightclubs. But after a while we reached quiet rows of old-fashioned apartment buildings, seven or eight storeys tall, with stone facades and flowers spilling over the balcony rails. One of them, at the intersection of two narrow lanes, was Terry's.

A tiny, slow elevator took us to the top floor. The apartment was big and smelled of leather from the armchairs and the tall bookshelves along two walls. "They came with the flat," Terry said. "But I read them sometimes. I've read Hamlet in Spanish, just to see what it was like." It was the first thing either of us had said since we left the hotel. I hadn't even asked where we were going. Walking with him, following him through the dark streets, I'd wanted just to keep on going until dawn, until we came to some green and lonely place outside the city where we could rest, too exhausted to speak.

"It's not exactly a mansion."

"No." He didn't sound unhappy about that. "Drink?"

"Whiskey. Preferably a good one."

"I only buy good whiskey."

I sat on the arm of a solid-looking dark green sofa and watched him at the drinks cabinet. His hands were steady. For himself, he filled a glass with soda water and topped it with a slice of lime. He passed me my whiskey and stood next to me, close enough that I could hear the deep breath he took before he spoke. "You did me one favor you don't know about. In your office, that last day. You made me ashamed of myself."

"Any time, pal." It was good whiskey, too good for the conversation. Shame goes with rotgut bourbon, like fish goes with white wine.

"You were right about me. I was empty. Nothing. Do you know why I drank so much?"

I shook my head.

"I had lies stuck in my throat. I couldn't swallow them and I couldn't spit them out. So I drank to wash them down and take the taste away."

If that was his epiphany, I didn't see anything special in it. Every drunk gets that far along the ugly road to self-knowledge, one night or another. Before he turns back.

"The thing I realized, hours later when it was too late to come back and tell you, was that I'd lied my way to the truth. That last big lie set me free. I could stop."

"I hear he's a real honest man, that Martin Sullivan."

Terry frowned, and the new scars some plastic surgeon had given him twisted. "You know that's not what I mean. The deep lies, the lies under the skin, those are the ones that ruin a man." He took my empty glass away and put his slim hand on my arm. "What lies are you choking on, Philip?"

I tried to twist away from him, but he held on. "I don't - "

"It's all right. I already know." He touched my face, softly. I couldn't breathe and I couldn't move. It was the lies; I could feel them cutting into me, so thin and so strong, like vines that take forty years to kill a tree.

He kissed me, and they fell away.

At first what we did kept surprising me. Revelations of all the things I'd wanted popped and sparked like a string of firecrackers, each one triggering the next. But in the end I forgot to be surprised, and that was the moment, maybe, when the lies were finally gone.

Afterwards, smiling and yawning, he let me touch him all over. I got to know the smell of him, and the scars that his clothes hid. I kept coming back to his flat chest and his narrow hips, where his body was least like a woman's. It didn't disgust me. I liked it.

Queer, I thought. All the names went through my head. Fairy, faggot, pansy, fruit. This is what they mean. They meant that Terry's body was like mine, but not mine, and I couldn't keep my hands and my mouth away from it.

I'd never known I could be so happy and so miserable at once.

I must have sighed, or something. Terry put his arms around me and held me still. "The really rough part," he said, "is not to start lying again."

"What if I don't know how to stop?"

His hand slid into my hair and back along my head. "Trust me." It almost made me laugh, when I'd trusted him all the way to this bed, that he thought it needed saying. "You saved my life. Let me save yours."

I didn't answer, because I wasn't sure all the lies were out of my throat yet. But my body, which had been learning truth, leaned in closer to his. I laid my hand over his heart and felt it beating.