The day was young and I was not. Feeling every minute of my 34 years, I trudged up the steep hill toward the dilapidated building where I rented office space. A coin flipped to the kid hawking papers got the day's Chronicle. The war was showing no signs of stopping, Roosevelt was encouraging the American people to be patriotic, and an unidentified man was found dead in the hills, cause undetermined, homicide likely. Same old San Francisco.
Maggie was typing as I opened the door to my fourth floor office decorated with the words 'Quenton Dane, Private Investigator.' She was ferocious as a little terrier about handling the few billing and reminder notices the business generated, and fantastic at research. Other than that, I was never quite sure what she worked on so diligently. Sometimes I wondered if she was writing the great American novel in my dingy office. But her petite body was all leg, her hair was as blonde as sunshine, her telephone and receptionist skills were excellent, and she always had a mean cup of joe waiting for me. I didn't care what she found to occupy her free time. Maybe she'd become a famous author and hire me as a bodyguard so I could finally earn some decent dough. At 6'4" and 220 pounds, I can do intimidation well when required.
"Client waiting for you, Quent."
A surprising start to the day but certainly welcome. Business was slow and I had bills to pay. "Name? Business?"
"Wouldn't give it. A private matter, he said."
I paused. Maggie didn't believe in anyone's privacy but her own. Not even mine.
"Suit hand tailored by Philippe, haircut by Rico, and sure to check out that pinky ring. With a hunk that big from Africa, he's a very international gentleman."
Well, that explained it. For all that Maggie usually shopped at the five and dime store, she recognized and could identify expensive at a thousand paces. Rich clients were rare and therefore could be allowed some latitude. Most of my business consisted of petty matters, divorces, and background checks, not high society shenanigans. "Thanks Maggie."
I barged into my office without warning, hung my trench coat on the rack, placed the fedora on the top, and checked myself in the mirror. Brow and broken nose too pronounced to be handsome, blue eyes set deeply, strong jaw, brown hair with the merest tint of gray on the temples. I wasn't a pretty picture. But I was clean-shaven and alert, and my skills and intelligence were more important to any client than my looks. I opened the shutters and sat behind my desk, picking up the perfect cup of coffee waiting for me, sipping the strong black beverage while examining my client.
Rich yes. Fashion was hardly my strong suit but even I could tell when a suit cost more than my entire wardrobe. The pinky ring flashed in the murky sunlight coming in from the window, throwing a rainbow on the floor. I knew stones better than clothes, and that one was worth more than my 1932 Ford.
"So how can I help you, Mister?"
"Virgil Preston. It's an extremely confidential matter, Mr. Dane."
"Discretion is my middle name, Mr. Preston. As long as you've got 25 dollars a day plus expenses."
"I believe my ward is in trouble, Mr. Dane."
"What kind of trouble?"
"I don't know. Something that involves large sums of cash."
"Tell me about your ward."
"His name is Andrew Mackenzie."
"Of the Mackenzie Company?"
I whistled, quiet and slow. Mackenzie meant money, old money, big money. Perhaps the biggest in San Francisco, old money begun with the original patriarch selling food to the gold miners in 49 rather than being foolish enough to scrabble in the dirt himself. That old Scot was wise in money matters, a trait he'd passed along to his descendants. Even the stock market crash that bankrupted most of America barely fazed the Mackenzie Company. I didn't know much about the company, but I knew the business was diversified and financially prudent. "So what's the problem? He's got the money, doesn't he?"
"His trust fund does. The company does. He doesn't, beyond what he's saved from his allowance. I have access to his accounts, and I've watched him drain his finances. It's very unlike him. I'm worried he's got himself into trouble that he can't get out of. He usually confides in me, but he's been very evasive lately."
The whole situation seemed ridiculous to me. Young men do sow their wild oats, and the rich do it extravagantly. But my client seemed sincere, one of those bland business types best suited for fussing with paperwork whose worst sin was too much social drinking, and he hadn't blinked at my fee. I almost wish I'd doubled it, but I was never comfortable with unnecessary gouging. "So why me?"
"Pardon my bluntness, but I don't normally see clients of your financial caliber."
"Oh. Yes. Well, honestly, I picked you somewhat randomly. I didn't want to involve our regular security man."
In other words, he didn't want the dirt known by anyone in his own circle. Still, I couldn't quite see him as the type to open the phone book and chant eenie meenie minie mo, and the regular security man would make more sense than a stranger if a scandal needed to be hushed up.
"I'll need an invite to dinner."
That took him by surprise. Good. I trusted my clients not to trust me, and few of them had disappointed me. They always left something out of the equation, some embarrassing or sordid fact that I needed to know, and I guessed he might have neglected to mention even more than most. I wanted to see Virgil and Andrew together in their home environment. I wanted to put myself in his circle, even if he didn't want me there.
"Dinner, that meal eaten at night. Usually meat and potatoes. You two do eat together, don't you?"
"Yes, Andrew lives with me." He hesitated, and I could tell he wasn't sure about the idea. "Very well. Tonight, arrive at 6:00." He rose and we shook hands. His grip was strong and his palm wasn't sweaty, which was one point in his favor.
"Leave your address and your retainer with Maggie."
"We dress for dinner, Mr. Dane." With that shot, he left, and I settled back down to contemplate the conversation and sip my coffee. We should have talked longer. I usually asked more questions. But he was too ... sincere. My instincts were sniffing like a hound after a raccoon. Further evasions might have been interesting, but I'd rather get to the bottom of the tree and start scratching.
Maggie rushed in, obviously happy. "That's some payday, Quent!" She fanned the money on the clean surface of my desk, six crisp twenties and a five.
I plucked a twenty and put it in my wallet. "Close the office Maggie. Deposit the money in the bank, pay yourself, and then I need you to do some research for me."
She perched on the desk, her polka-dotted dress sliding back on her thighs to expose her lovely legs, tucking the money into her bodice. "What sort of research, Quent?"
"Andrew Mackenzie. The Andrew Mackenzie of the Mackenzie Company. I need to know anything you can learn about him and his family. They're old money, so start with the society pages. I'll cover government documents."
A swirl of cotton and Maggie was gone, leaving me to my thoughts. Some interesting mixed messages there. Honest tone, good grip, a sincere manner. But his words didn't ring true. There was a mystery to be solved, the discrepancy between his apparent personality and the logic of his actions. Good money and a client I thought might be playing me; it was going to be my favorite kind of case.
My vision was blurred from too much fine print when I found Dex at the morgue. Research had been relatively successful; I had Andrew's basic background and facts about the company, and Maggie should fill in some gaps. Now I wanted to scent out if any professional involvement was likely.
Dex was studying a corpse, his common occupation during his too frequent visits to the morgue. Lieutenant Dexter Finnegan was an old friend from my days on the force, the days before I acknowledged that I needed to be my own boss, answerable only to my conscience and the clients I chose to accept. Many made the mistake of taking Dex's bulldog looks as indicative of his intelligence. Criminals invariably found to their dismay that while bulldogs might not make the most intuitive leaps of logic, they knew how to dig in and hold on. Dex might never make captain, but he would always get his man.
"Hey, Quenton. Take a look."
The young man would have been beautiful in life, his handsome looks ruined by his bloodless skin, black hair matted with blood on one side from the bullet that creased his skull, chest covered with red from the one that hit dead center, blue eyes glassy in death. "The one in today's paper?"
"Yeah. It's a shame. If he had to die, it should at least have been fighting the Nazis, not shot in the city and dumped in the bushes."
I grunted in acknowledgment. There wasn't much to say about senseless death.
The corpse is the first piece of evidence in a homicide, but Dex must have gotten all the clues he could find himself, as he slammed the door shut and we headed out to the street. The weather was chill, but our trench coats kept us warm. "What's up, Quent?"
"Know anything about Mackenzie's?"
"My brother-in-law works for them. Good company. Expect hard work but pay decent wages."
"No hints of scandal, bad business?"
"Not a whistle. Harry's happy as a lark. I expect he'll work for them until he retires. Or until my sister gives him a heart attack."
"Anything about the family?"
"The family?" Dex looked at me sideways. "Moving up, are you?" When I didn't respond, he shrugged. "Some rich kid playing around until he inherits. Fairly useless I understand. The Board runs the company, overseen by an executive officer."
"If you hear anything, will you let me know?"
"Sure, Quent. Any time."
I headed back to my car, checking my watch. It was time to see what Maggie had found. And dig out my dinner jacket.
The house was easy to find; even in San Francisco's most exclusive neighborhood, mansions that large are hard to hide. I drove up to the front and parked, admiring the manicured grounds, an unusual luxury in the city's close quarters. The building itself was brick and solid, built to last through earthquakes and fires, but its squareness was softened by some astonishingly large and lovely bougainvilleas, the colorful purple blooms adding grace and beauty. My own apartment was a small one-bedroom place that suited my needs but I did wish I had space for a garden. No one knew, not even Maggie, but Golden Gate Park on a nice day was my favorite place. Sit on a park bench, feed peanuts to the pigeons, and just breathe the fresh oxygen, feel the green life eroding the shell of my cynicism and restoring the optimism of my youth. My old buddies from the police force might snigger, but I would love to tend this front garden, and I was guessing the back would be even more amazing. Maybe I'd get a chance to see it. I'd find an excuse if I could. I enjoyed helping people through my profession, but I wasn't averse to a few mild personal indulgences along the way, when possible.
The butler was as stiff as his white collar, leading me directly to the conservatory. Either someone in the family shared my passion, or the gardener worked his magic here too, as the plants in their pots were lush and green, with no evidence of withered leaves or neglect. I nearly missed the kid sitting in a wicker chair, half hidden by ferns. Like me, he wore a white shirt and dinner jacket, black slacks, shoes, and bow tie, but the differences stopped with the color of our clothes. He was young and beautiful, with reddish hair and a smooth face marked by the merest dimple in his chin and two strategically placed moles that only accented the flawlessness of the rest of his features. He looked polished and perfect, like a true thoroughbred, not a mongrel.
A discontent thoroughbred, that is, unhappiness hinted in the droop of his soft lower lip and in his eyes as they reflected the color of the stunning blue-grey of the Japanese Painted Fern by his chair. "You must be Andrew."
"And you must be uncle's guest, Mr. Dane. Can I get you a drink?"
"Scotch, if you have it."
"We have everything, Mr. Dane."
The kid swallowed his own drink, standing and crossing to the bar at one end of the room, pouring a healthy measure for me and replenishing his own glass. "So what do you do, Mr. Dane?"
"Call me Quenton. Or Quent. Mr. Dane was my father. I'm a security consultant." Safe answer, close enough to my own profession for a masquerade to be believable. I sipped my drink. Single Scotch malt, thirty years old if it was a day. Everything and only the best, apparently. "And what do you do, Mr. Mackenzie?"
"Me? I don't do anything, Mr. Dane. I just enjoy life."
He didn't sound happy, he sounded frustrated. "Odd, you don't sound like you're having a good time to me."
His eyes widened momentarily, as if surprised by my bluntness. He was obviously accustomed to servants, yes-men and sycophants. Wealth tended to attract those kinds of people, but I didn't intend to act like one. It wasn't my nature to kowtow, even if I got in trouble for it. Sincerity softened his former sarcasm as he replied, "I wanted to enlist, but uncle doesn't think I should."
"The army isn't an easy life. Particularly now."
"I never asked for an easy life. I want to serve my country, to do my duty overseas."
"You're the last of your line, Andrew. The last son with the Mackenzie name. You need to do your duty here."
Preston moved quietly, annoyingly quiet. Most people couldn't sneak up on me, but I kept my expression pleasant, not revealing my surprise. "Mr. Preston, pleased to see you again."
"But I'm not doing my duty here, uncle. You won't let me help in the office."
"The young are so extreme, aren't they Mr. Dane? Life doesn't have to be service in the army or slogging away in the office all day, Andrew."
Andrew grimaced, looking at me. "Uncle thinks I'm too young to be burdened with learning the company, Mr. Dane. He's responsible for my inheritance until I'm 25."
"And a pleasure it is, Andrew. The burden may be heavy at times, but anything to fulfill the last wishes of my dearest friends."
Andrew said nothing, tossing back his drink.
Preston smiled beneficently. "Shall we eat?"
We adjourned into the dining room and had one of the most exquisite gourmet meals of my life, though I'd rather have been eating the blue plate special at Mary's Caf The conversation there could be rough, but at least it was honest and less frustrating to watch. Andrew was a puppy on a leash, the leash of gratitude, and the more he struggled, the more Preston tightened the choke chain. Over appetizers, we started to talk of many things, the war, the president, the economy, the latest baseball game, but Preston always returned the conversation to society shindigs, charity functions, polo games and other nonsense that Andrew spent his time pretending he enjoyed. The kid didn't want to be one of the pampered idle rich; he craved to be fulfilling his birthright. If I'd been responsible for him, he would have been up with the sun every day, down at the business and learning it from the ground up, no shirking or lollygagging, getting his hands dirty until he knew every nut and bolt that he would own. But I wasn't the doting uncle and he wasn't mine to train.
Throughout the salad and soup, the kid tried a few more times to suggest he could be helpful, but all he earned from Preston was unctuous platitudes and noble self-sacrifice. And the kid didn't know how to tell the martyr to get off his stake. I could almost believe Preston was deliberately trying to ruin the kid by turning him into a spoiled wastrel, except that didn't make sense. I couldn't fathom any logical reason that Preston would want the kid to be unprepared to run his own business and ruin it from inexperience.
I'd have to ask Maggie to check if Preston had any stock in competing companies. We'd all learned from the great crash that fortunes could be made and lost in many surprising ways.
For the meantime, I guessed that Preston was one of those blinded by his own need to take care of the young and innocent one entrusted to him. It didn't feel right, but it was the only working hypothesis I had. By the serving of the entrée, the kid began withdrawing from the conversation, turning moody and speaking only when asked a direct question. While coffee and dessert were being served, he left abruptly for the evening, fulfilling his uncle's wish to see him go play.
"You see, Mr. Dane? He's difficult and disinterested. I try to do so much for him, and he throws it back in my face."
He knows it's past time to be doing for himself, I thought, but said only, "I gotta go." I took off at a fast lope, making it outside in time to see the taillights of a red Jaguar SS-100 disappear down the road, leaping into my car and zooming after him. I didn't need to thrash out the dinner conversation with Preston, the truth would be revealed by following Andrew.
The joint was isolated but a lot of people had managed to find it, judging by the cars parked outside. Crowded was good. Crowded would make it easier to observe Andrew without being noticed. I blend well but my size makes fading into the woodwork impossible. I could hear a band playing Glenn Miler's Little Brown Jug, the clink of glasses and giddy laughter as my feet crunched up the gravel path. The Mackenzie name got me past the burly guard at the door, his tuxedo not disguising the gun he wore in a shoulder holster. I'd left mine in the glove compartment. Weapons could be necessary evils, but overall I preferred conversation. It was less messy and the results tended to be easier to explain to the cops.
Along with the drinking and the dancing was gambling, mostly roulette and poker, the professional kind with paid dealers where the house is the only sure winner. I scouted around the fringes of the crowd, recognizing some society people, not knowing others from Adam. If drunken laughter was any indication of a good time, everyone was having a ball.
Except Andrew. He was at the roulette table, steadily losing. He revealed no signs of obsession like most gamblers, waiting impatiently for his big win. He was simply ... losing. Place chips on a number, stare at the table until he lost and the chips were swept away, put more chips down. Where the ball landed didn't seem to matter one slightest bit, his thoughts turned inward to his own problems. It was time to take action.
I stepped forward, squeezing his bicep as he started to put more chips down, scooping them up. "It's time to cash in. We need to talk."
The dealer didn't look happy, glancing around for someone to intercede, but with so many people watching, no one stopped me as I politely manhandled Andrew over to the cashier. No one except Andrew, who swore under his breath at me to go away, but didn't seem willing to cause a scene as I used my greater strength and height to force him out the door.
His verbalness exploded in a hiss as we stepped outside. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Taking care of you."
The burly guard followed us out. "Mr. Duchamps wants to see you."
"This isn't necessary," Andrew said rapidly. "He's misunderstood the situation. He'll be leaving and I'll return to my gambling."
The burly guard didn't speak. The gun in his hand was response enough.
"Please," Andrew said. "He doesn't have any involvement in this."
A wave of the gun indicated we were to head toward the back. I contemplated taking the gun away from him. He might be big, but his muscles were overlaid with fat, a sure sign of someone who relied more on presence than true power. Someone who deserved to be taken down a notch. But I wanted more answers, and this next meeting was likely to provide a cartful.
The gentleman was as austere as his guests in the other room were animated. Tall, perhaps as tall as myself, but close to two decades older, with white hair, mustache and beard, wearing a black tuxedo and carrying a silver headed cane. Very dignified in an almost sensual way. He would have made a good Dracula in his youth. "Mr. Mackenzie, what a pleasure it is to see you again. I'm afraid I haven't had your acquaintance, sir?"
His words were accented by the elegant preciseness of the British upper class and mine sounded coarse as I answered. "Quenton Dane, I'm a friend of Drew's. And you are?"
"Everyone calls me the Count." He smiled, twirling the cane once, using it as prop rather than walking stick. "This is my humble establishment. I understand there has been some difficulty tonight?"
"No difficulty. Drew and I were leaving and your fellow objected to our departure."
He turned his head toward the kid. "I'm surprised, Andrew. You don't normally leave us this early. But if you wish to go, we won't stop you."
"I - " The kid's eyes flickered between Dracula and me. "I think it's best. I'm not feeling lucky tonight."
"I hope we shall see you tomorrow."
"Yes, definitely, yes. I will return tomorrow."
"Then have a good evening."
We were allowed to leave. The kid was intimidated and silent, so I suppose Dracula's objective was achieved. However, he hadn't reckoned on my stubbornness. I had an instinct about many things, an ability to make uncanny guesses about people and their motivations. The gambling was clearly a façade for blackmail, and I was pretty sure that I knew Andrew's shameful secret. I had gone through the same trauma myself; I recognized the look on another's face. I just had to make him accept it before we could deal with it.
At least, I hoped I was right. Otherwise I was succumbing to wishful thinking in my old age and was likely to embarrass both of us immensely.
I shoved him into my car. He started to protest but I jerked my head toward the watching guard, and he shut up. We didn't speak on the drive back to my apartment. I wanted to let his thoughts have time to boil, and besides, cars are lousy places for confrontations. Watching someone's eyes while driving is almost impossible unless I wanted to lose control of the wheel and cause a wreck.
My place lacked the elegance of his, but it's home to me. I made some coffee while he shuffled around, looking at my books and furnishings, plunking a few keys on my battered Baldwin, a legacy from my mother. "Sit."
He sat, taking the coffee and warming his hands with the cup. The evening wasn't too chilly, but the heater was taking its own sweet time to kick in. We both would have been warmer with trench coats rather than dinner jackets. "You should take me home."
"So you're being blackmailed."
His eyes jumped to me and away. Oh yeah, dead on target with the first shot. I was always a superb marksman. "What makes you say that?"
"Anyone who plays chess in high school has the intelligence to realize roulette's a losing game."
"You've been researching me?"
"Birth certificate, society pages, that sort of thing. Your uncle hired me. He thinks you're in trouble. And as far as I can tell, he's right."
"He keeps trying to protect me." He put down his coffee and rose, pacing restlessly around my small living room. "I wish he'd stay out of this. There's nothing he can do."
"So why don't you tell me what's going on and I'll see if I can help?"
"You're not a security consultant, are you?"
"I'm a private detective. And I'm good at helping people out of jams."
"There's nothing you can do to help me. There's nothing anyone can do."
"Why? Because you think no one understands? What if I told you I know exactly what you were going through?" I trapped him in mid-pace, forcing him back against the flat white surface of the wall, his head cradled in one of my hands, my body against his, my other hand cupping his butt to lift him into my kiss. And kiss him I did, exploratory at first, gentle, but firming quickly, forcing his mouth open, plunging my tongue in, lingering over the straight white teeth, caressing his warm tongue with my own. Surprise kept him motionless until passion took over and his hips jerked against mine, one black trouser clad leg curling around my calf, his hands working under my dinner jacket to rest on the sides of my torso.
Rational thought occurred to him before me. I would have been content to forget the job and his troubles, dragging him to my bed to discover how little or how much he'd figured out about his own nature and what to do with his luscious body. But he yanked with the leg hooked behind my own, and I ended up on the floor while he shot across the room, standing by the dubious protection of the curtains.
"All right. All right. I get the message." I stood slowly, finding my coffee, sitting back down on the couch.
"So are you."
"But you're - you're a private detective."
"We come in all professions, you know. All sizes, all backgrounds. I was a cop before I was a private detective."
He hugged himself, looking vulnerable, and I wanted to hug him too. "No, I didn't know. I've been too afraid. It's a sin. Homosexuals are supposed to be damned."
"Can we forget about our immortal souls and concentrate on the here and now? Dracula has pictures of you, I gather?"
"How did you - of course, anything else I would be able to deny. Pictures are hard to fake, aren't they?"
He had a fine mind when he chose to use it; his high school and college accomplishments attested to that fact. "It's not impossible, but even a great fake won't stand up under scrutiny. So how bad are the pictures?"
"Bad, very bad." Sighing, he slumped down on a chair. "I didn't realize until I was in college. I knew in high school I was different, but I thought it was just uncle's insistence on proper manners, that I never tried to take advantage of a girl. That I wasn't in love yet. Then a friend made a pass at me in college, and well - I knew for certain. But I didn't know anyone I could trust with my secret, so I've tried to hide it, forget about it. Until I met Seth. He's a tennis instructor at the club and I fell head over heels. He was so sensitive and thoughtful. We started meeting at his place, and..."
"You can spare me the romantic details for now. I'll need to see the pictures. Where are they?"
"I keep them on me. I'm afraid to leave them in my room, in case the maid finds them."
He didn't take any more action, so I held out my hand. Reluctantly, he pulled an envelope from his inner jacket pocket and held it. "Don't worry, it's nothing I haven't seen yet."
"You haven't seen mine," he said defiantly, but he handed it over.
Good, there was definitely fire under that polished upbringing and bitter frustration he'd shown at dinner. I'd have to work on stoking the flames. The pictures were indeed bad. Or very, very good, depending on your viewpoint. They were a little dark since they couldn't have used a flashbulb that Andrew would have noticed. It was hard to see his face in the final pictures, but his smiling, sensual face was caught perfectly during foreplay. The other man was classically good looking, with black hair and eyes that I knew would be blue because I'd seen them in the morgue that morning. "Have you talked to your friend about these?"
"Yes, but he doesn't know how they were taken or how someone learned we were seeing each other. No one has approached him."
"A tennis instructor doesn't have quite the money you do."
"No, but even my money isn't limitless. Sooner or later it's going to run out and I'll have to ask uncle for help. I don't know how I'm going to tell him. He's done so much for me."
"He doesn't know you've been losing money?"
"No, so far I've managed with my allowance and savings and Uncle does let me handle that money myself. But the Count made it clear that's just a set. He's got the original and the negatives. Uncle won't let me help in the business. I can't get myself out of a blackmail situation. I can't do anything."
So Preston was keeping closer tabs on his money than Andrew knew. I filed that deception away as interesting. Drew looked bitter and exhausted, poor thing, and I wanted to make everything right for him. From my own experience I knew that hiding his homosexuality would have been bad enough. Adding a smothering relative and a blackmail threat on top with no one to confide in would have been devastating. "Kid, you need to sit down."
My gentle tone must have warned him. He sat in my armchair. "There's something else."
"We may need to work on avoiding a murder charge for you."
"But the Count was fine when we left!" An exhalation of breath, and he added, "Not - not Seth?"
"I'm afraid so."
"The unidentified man in today's paper." His eyes teared slightly, but he blinked the moisture away.
"He'll be identified by tomorrow, the day after at the latest. The detective in charge is very good. Fortunately for you, I'm better."
"But why would I kill Seth? I loved him."
My instincts said that the uncle was a slimy bastard who wanted the kid's money, and he hired me to make sure the connection between the two came out. That he wanted the horror of Drew's homosexuality revealed to the public, including our ambitious district attorney who was well known for never flinching from prosecution. Convicting a spoiled rich fag of murder? His career would be made in every scandal sheet in the country. But somehow I didn't think Drew was willing to hear my suspicions of his uncle's duplicity, particularly when my suspicions were based on nothing more than a bad feeling and a smile as broad as an alligator's. "Let's just say I have a hunch. And now you need to sleep. You can take the bed. I'll grab the couch."
He wanted to be polite and go home, but I insisted and ultimately he ended up curling under my blankets, sleeping in his T-shirt and shorts. He looked good in my bed, the lines of stress easing as sleep took him.
I made myself comfortable on the couch, the room lit by my reading lamp, studying the black and white photos and going over the events of the day. Something was still missing. Why had Preston dragged me into this? If I discovered Drew's homosexuality and clues suggesting he'd murdered his lover, wouldn't he think I'd be more likely to destroy the evidence, since Drew's "devoted" uncle was my client? Or was he assuming I would find homosexuality revolting and hightail it to the police? A visit to Mr. Sparky would certainly terminate Drew's claiming his inheritance.
I didn't ponder long, quickly realizing that no matter how much my intellect was intrigued by my client's motivations, I needed to put the pictures aside and go to sleep. I didn't want to alarm my new client by having him stroll out for a drink of water and find me masturbating to pornographic pictures of him.
I'd always been a light sleeper, so I was awake and in the bedroom seconds after his cries started. A nightmare, by the evidence of his thrashing and tortured sounds. He was easy to hold, fitting well in my arms, but definitely all male. He woke with a jerk, finding himself cuddled in my arms, one of my big paws stroking his back. "I had a nightmare."
"You're all right now."
"I was dreaming of Seth. We were playing tennis, and my ball went spinning at his head, knocking him down. There was blood everywhere but I couldn't move. I stood on my side of the court, watching him fall, the blood covering his face and clothes."
"His death must be pretty upsetting to you."
"It wasn't just his death." His voice was quiet with shame. "I was breaking up with him. We'd had several rows. Stupid rows. And now he's dead because of me..."
"We don't know why he's dead. It may have nothing to do with the pictures."
"Do you really think so?"
"A good detective never makes conclusions in advance of the facts, and we don't have any facts about his death yet." Actually, a good detective often makes suppositions based on instincts and goes digging for facts to prove his guess, but I figured he didn't need to hear that. Keeping an open mind was always a valid tactic. For people who didn't have good instincts.
"Thank you. For the reassurance." He tilted back in my arms. The lights were off, but enough reflected glow entered the window that I could see his face, his eyes now an intense midnight blue. His lips met mine, gently and softly.
I cherished a taste, then tried to detach our bodies. "Time to get back to sleep."
But his hand fell into my lap, and my boxers were no cover for the size of my erection.
"Please, help me to not think."
That was a request I bitterly wished to fulfill, but fooling with clients is never wise, and I told him so.
"I - I'm sorry." He turned his head away, a light pink on his cheeks. "I shouldn't have asked."
He was so vulnerable, so defenseless, I had to give him a sympathetic nuzzle, not wanting him to feel rejected. His lips met mine, and I was lost. He yielded easily, lying back down as I covered him, the sheets and blankets bunched between our legs. He didn't kiss well, but I can be a patient man. I was primitively grateful that as his first lover, Seth had not been a great teacher, giving me the opportunity to rectify his mistake. I nuzzled him again, then explored the outside of his lips with my tongue, pressed our lips together, took a nibble out of that delectable lower lip. I didn't rush even though we were both hard. If I was going to do something this crazy and this wonderful, I was going to do it well.
He followed my lead, letting me set the pace, and responded slowly but enthusiastically, learning from me and returning my kisses and caresses. We stayed on first base a long time, kissing and breathing hard and kissing some more until he was becoming an expert, then I moved on, sliding off his undershirt, exploring his chest, finding the places that made his whole body tingle, the soft flesh where neck met chest, his nipples, flat and brown, the way the skin around his belly button quivered as I tongued the little dimple.
My hands caught on his underwear, but he rolled us, pinning my hands to the bed, waiting until I went limp. He took off my undershirt and demonstrated what a good pupil he was, his attentions to my body thorough and sensual, continuing until I was gasping. He took to my training like a prodigy, graduating to master class in no time flat. With a satisfied smile, he flipped over to his back.
"Going to let me finish now?" I teased.
"Please," he said, his tone both light and fervent.
His penis sprang upward as I removed his underwear, and I took the tip in my mouth. I love being in control of a man like this, finding his ultimate vulnerability, giving him maximum pleasure with my mouth. I put him through the wringer, licking his length, sucking hard, backing off to lightly trace the veins with my tongue, teasing him by rolling his sac with my hands. Holding his slim thighs spread open, I paid his shaft complete and dedicated attention until he was arching off the bed, crying out, filling my mouth and throat. Like him, his seed tasted young and masculine and good and my thirst was unquenchable.
He was struggling for breath as he collapsed. I held him for a long time until his breathing became regular. Catching hold of my erection, he said, "It's time to take care of you."
"There's something I'd rather do more," I replied, squeezing his firm butt. He tensed but nodded, his head brushing against my chin. I wasn't sure why he seemed reticent, from the pictures I knew he had experience. "Don't worry. You're going to love this."
"I trust you."
"I'm going to send you over the moon."
I went for lubricant in the medicine chest, and he was on his stomach when I returned, hips raised, but I wanted to see his face. I'd made a promise and I was going to keep it. I turned him back over, lifting his legs onto my shoulders, cushioning his butt on my thighs. He squirmed a bit, but I leaned forward and we shared more melting kisses until he was comfortable again.
I started preparing him in the middle of a kiss, my tongue distracting him from the invasion of my lubricated fingers. I had two in before I hit the right spot, and he jerked away from the kiss, staring at me with wide-eyed wonder. So I did it again.
"What are you doing?"
The moment seemed inopportune for a medical explanation of the prostate gland, so I grinned and said, "Don't worry, it gets better."
"You'd better deliver on that promise!"
I was in him before he fully realized it, having made sure his tight opening was completely loosened. He was making wild keening noises every time my penis stroked his prostate. His arms flailed back, over his head to clutch at the pillow, and I could see the lean muscles contracting as he squeezed repeatedly, trying to release the pleasure I was giving him. He desperation made me feel powerful, like a god, and I decided I had been patient long enough. I took him hard and fast, plunging into him repeatedly, all of our muscles working in concert, my cock opening him wide, my hips slamming into his body, both of us sweating with the exhilaration.
Coming in him was the best orgasm in my entire life, my mind fairly exploding like fireworks shooting over the bay on the fourth of July. What made it even better was when he reached up to grab me, holding me tight, his kiss showering me with gratitude.
My bed wasn't built for two, but somehow we made it work. With Drew snuggled in my arms and our legs tangled, I had the most peaceful slumber I'd enjoyed in years. I woke first, admiring the relaxed softness of his face in sleep, wondering if he would feel as good about last night as I did. It took time for him to recognize where he was, eyes blinking, yawning, stretching in my arms. I knew he had reached consciousness when he smiled brilliantly, seeking my lips with his own. We kissed lingeringly. Our breath wasn't the most fragrant but I could have been in a forest glade, surrounded by the scents of pine, the moment felt so special.
He pressed his early morning erection into my stomach, and with a few gliding undulations and a bump, we climaxed together. The gusher comes quickly when the pumps are already primed. Our moans of pleasure were muted by the fact that our lips were still sealed together in a kiss.
I allowed us a few moments of petting to come down, then said regretfully, "We should get up."
"We have a lot to do today."
"I have a lot to do today," I corrected.
He switched rapidly from compliant lover to mutinous client, his eyes stormy. "This is my life we're talking about. Seth's life. He was important to me even if I didn't love him anymore. I can't just go home and lounge around all day, waiting to hear what you've found."
My respect for him would have diminished if he had, so I conceded without much of a fight. "Very well, but don't get in my way. And don't contradict anything I say."
"I will be your Holmes, in the background and ever patient and helpful," he promised.
"Good." We rose to get cleaned and dressed, me in a fresh suit, him in last night's dinner clothes. We made an odd pair, but we were united in our determination. It was time to catch a killer.
Drew was quiet while I drove. I wondered what occupied his thoughts but didn't ask. He had to lot to consider.
Seth's small place was on the grounds of the country club, a perk of the profession and isolated enough to be ideal for a romantic rendezvous. Drew had a key, so we let ourselves in. The front room was sketchily decorated, even worse than my place: faded couch, worn armchair, cheap table with a lamp, matching coffee table, small wood desk. "Did you spend much time in here?"
"Not much no."
People leave fingerprints more places than they imagine, but the real killer might have left his too. I wasn't sure yet how much I should impede the police investigation to protect my client. Then we entered the bedroom and I realized the answer was as much as I needed to. The bedroom was the crime scene, Seth shot while lying in bed, the sheets tousled from passion and stained with his blood, the room heavy with the stifling musky scent of sex. Just peeping out from under the bed was a gold cigarette case. I picked it up and handed it to Drew. "Yours?"
He blinked, astonished, at the initials "ACM" on the case. "Yes, but I didn't bring it here. I only carry it to parties. I don't smoke."
"Well someone brought it here. Better start thinking when you last had it. You have a handkerchief?"
"Good. Go wipe down every surface in the living room. Coffee table, end table, light switches, all of it."
He left, knowing when to take orders. I appreciated that about him, particularly since I was sure he had enough backbone to argue when his opinion was different. But in this case, my judgment was correct.
I took care of the bedroom, figuring he didn't need gratuitous exposure to the blood stains left from his lover's murder. His hair was on the pillow, enough strands that I guessed they'd been pulled from his hairbrush. I found a silk scarf in the closet, and stuffed it in my pocket. None of the other clothes looked inappropriate for a tennis professional.
The bathroom yielded little so I wiped it down and left. I found Drew taking care of the kitchen. "Good man."
"I wiped off the desk but didn't touch anything."
"Is this yours?" I held out the scarf and wasn't surprised when he nodded.
"But I haven't worn it here. Or brought the case."
I didn't respond, heading for the desk. We could chitchat later. Seth didn't have much paperwork but none of it was sorted. Pay stubs, paid bills, overdue notices, bank statements all mingled together. The last few bank statements revealed that he'd received a sizable payment beside his paycheck, but that he spent his money liberally. Maybe he liked to gamble? "Did you ever give him money?"
"I did buy him presents, gold cufflinks as a special present and a tie pin for his last birthday. The department store will have a record of it."
"Can't be helped now."
There was a picture of Drew mixed in with the bills, so I slipped it in my pocket. "So you had a lover's spat, tussled, and you shot him." He started to protest but I waved him to silence. "Then you panicked, and decided you'd better get rid of the body. Where did you park your car? Out front?"
"No, off to the side so it would be less noticeable."
Sure enough, a clear line of heavy footprints led to where the trunk of the car would have been located. Too heavy for a man of Drew's height, unless he was toting a body. I scuffed them.
Drew was looking sick while he watched me. "Someone framed me."
"Yes, and possibly planned to since the pictures were taken. Seth may have signed his own death warrant when he cooperated with the blackmail."
"Someone close to me, someone who has access to my house. To my possessions."
"But why? It doesn't make sense."
"Do you have a gun?"
"No - well, yes. I do have my father's. Uncle gave it to me a few years ago."
"Seen it lately?"
"I keep it in a box with my parents' other possessions that uncle saved for me. I haven't looked at it lately. Do you think the killer stole it too?"
I shrugged, heading to my car. We were done here and it was best to get out before the cops showed. He followed me, getting into the passenger seat before asking, "Why would anyone deliberately frame me?"
"You're a very wealthy young man. Money's usually a motive for a lot of things, including murder."
"But my cousins live in New York. They don't have access to my house. I don't even see them very much."
I started up the car and drove off as we talked, starting back toward his mansion. "Your cousins inherit everything?"
"Everything. Those were the terms of my father's will. His sister's children inherit if something happens to me before I reach my majority. There were some minor bequests to friends and family retainers, but those were distributed when the will was read."
"What about your uncle? Doesn't he get anything?"
"He's not my blood uncle. He was a friend of my parents. He was appointed the guardian of the estate because he's an excellent businessman."
"He's not your mother's brother?" I'd gotten accustomed to Drew using 'uncle' and forgotten that Preston had said 'ward.' Sloppy.
"No, he went to college with my parents. He was their best man."
"What happens to him if you die and the cousins inherit?"
"He wouldn't be responsible for the estate anymore. My aunt would take charge. It wouldn't matter to him though. He's a rich man with his own business to run."
"So no one who has motive to kill you could get your cigarette case, scarf, and gun, and no one who could get them has motive." He didn't respond, merely looked unhappy, so I continued. "You have any enemies, ex-lovers, anyone with a grudge against you?"
"No one. There's no one who has reason to hate me."
We lapsed into silence as I finished driving to his mansion. The butler answered the door, hiding any surprise at Drew's evening attire well, and reported that Preston was gone for the day. The box from his parents was in his bedroom, so Drew changed to fresh clothes while I looked through it. Pictures, some jewelry... no surprise that the gun was missing.
We made ourselves comfortable in the library, a beautiful room with wood bookcases filled with volumes that looked as if they had actually been read. I brought up the question of enemies and ex-lovers again, though Drew found the possibility hard to accept. We went back through the whole shebang of his life, where he was born, when and how his parents died, his schooling, friends, hobbies, servants, attempts at having girlfriends. How a person views his life and how others see him can paint two vastly different pictures, and I was determined to make Drew consider all options.
Several hours passed, just me grilling him and the nice butler gliding in with refreshments whenever we desired. To give him a break, a chance to think if he'd forgotten anything, I made a few calls to people I knew. It didn't help. Not a single hint existed that anyone in Drew's life owed money to bookies or was doing shady deals. The home front was squeaky clean. The staff was loyal retainers; the newest hire started two years ago, and she was the daughter of the cook. Drew's worst sin was probably being the most popular guy at his school, a superior athlete and an attentive student, the kind of guy some people might have hated because he was just so damned good, but he was sincere and sweet and a bit self-deprecating, and that would have counteracted jealousy.
Mid-afternoon, I came back around to the uncle. The portrait of him fit what I'd observed... was it only yesterday? Nice but in a way that was too self-sacrificing that smothered Drew and made him feel grateful, and irked me. Drew wasn't buying it.
"But there's still no reason. And he hasn't done anything except hire you. Out of concern for me," he said pointedly.
Frustrated, I walked over to the Steinway and sat on the bench. In normal circumstances, I might have enjoyed today, a chance to learn more about this handsome young man who had become my lover. But Seth's death nagged at me. Blackmail and murder were serious business, and the public was particularly touchy about security with the war raging all over the world. The police would need to close this case, to show that we were all safe in our beds even while our loved ones were off fighting the bad guys. I opened the piano and spread my hands on the keys, beginning the intricate Bach fugue in C-minor. The music usually helped me think, organize the different pieces together into a logical whole, but today it wasn't working. I could hear nothing but the breathy sounds Drew made last night.
Drew sat on the bench by me, listening, not talking until I finished. "That was beautiful."
"Thank you. It usually gives me inspiration, but it didn't help today."
His hands covered mine. "Your hands are as beautiful as the music they create."
The compliment made me uncomfortable. I always think of my hands as large and ungainly, like the rest of me. "The pieces aren't fitting together. We're missing some key elements."
"So what next?"
"I want to talk to the Count again. He must know the blackmailer. We need to shake him up, catch him off guard, make him reveal something."
"I don't think he'll be an easy nut to crack."
I squeezed his hands, the fingers finer and shorter than my own. "Leave it to me, kid. You're in good hands."
There were only two cars outside when we arrived, Drew's red Jaguar and a silver 1936 Bentley. Good, hopefully I wouldn't have to go through the goon to get the vampire to talk. We walked up to the back where the office was located, noting that the door was slightly ajar. I froze and Drew did too.
"It's not a good day for leaving the door open."
No, it wasn't. We were comfortable in our suits, but certainly not overly warm. "Stay behind me."
I resumed walking, realizing that Drew was right beside me. I stopped to glare but he just gave me a firm look back. I appreciated his guts, so squeezed his arm and we went on.
I tapped lightly on the door, and it continued swinging open. The vampire had become a victim, though of a modern gun rather than an old-fashioned stake. He sprawled on his back in the middle of the floor, a pool of blood under his body seeping out from the bullet holes that went straight through his chest, the silver head of his cane coated with red. His eyes were wide open. He'd seen his killer and either trusted him or been too surprised to react.
"As a doornail."
"I don't understand, why would someone kill him?"
"I'm guessing it was whoever hired him to blackmail you. He knows that person's name. He was a liability."
Drew looked sick, so I took him by the back of his neck and hauled him into a kiss, a long one with plenty of tongue. He was breathing fast when I let him go but at least I didn't have to worry about him tossing his cookies. "I want you to wait outside."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to take a quick look at his files. I want you outside. I don't want any more possible evidence that you've been here."
He looked stubborn for a second, then glanced back at the corpse. "Right," he said and left.
Using my handkerchief, I started opening the drawers in the metal file cabinet. It would be too fortunate to find the pictures or the negatives, but I wanted to see if there was anything else to tie the Count to Drew, Seth, or anyone who might know them - like his 'uncle.' The Count seemed to be a wealthy man, and kept decent records: personnel files on his employees, on alcohol and food purchases for the club, contracts with the performers, but nothing relating to blackmail.
I went through the desk next, pulling out the accounting book. He must have a secret set of books somewhere else; the money receipts from each night could be from a legitimate nightclub, but were way too low to be a gambling den's loot. Cheating the tax man, I presumed. Damn. I flicked through, looking for anything out of the ordinary, and found the one thing that might be helpful. Maybe we had a clue, maybe not... Finished with the desk, I examined the body. Trying to avoid the pool of blood made it an awkward business, but I managed, checking first that no 'evidence' had been left in his hands. I patted down his pockets, but he was only carrying a wallet with his driver's license and petty cash. I took a last look around to make sure I hadn't disturbed anything, and split.
Drew was standing outside, hugging his chest with his arms, wisely staying on the gravel path rather than leave a shoe impression in the soft dirt. "You found something, didn't you?"
"What makes you say that?"
We stopped by my Ford and he stepped close to me, one hand touching the side of my face. "You do a good poker face but your eyes give you away. There's a light in the back of the blueness. What did you find?"
I hugged him with one arm and then swatted his butt, shoving him toward his Jaguar. "We've got a visit to make. The Count made a rather substantial payment to an 'FF' two months ago."
"And you know who those initials belong to?"
"They belong to Felix Fischer, one of the best and sleaziest photographers in this town."
"He must have taken the pictures."
"Bet you a dollar to a dime he did."
"Then let's go find him."
I liked Drew now that he wasn't stifled by his uncle and frustrated about the blackmail. He had determination and focus, a far cry from the unhappy rich dilettante I met last night, as if my presence and support had liberated the person he was truly meant to be. Sure, I was at first attracted to his incredibly good looks and great body, but I found myself enjoying working with him, learning his personality. Yeah, I liked him a lot.
He had everything going for him, looks, wealth, charm. He could have a wonderful life. And would, just as soon as I revealed who was trying to frame him for cold-blooded murder.
I drove my car in a tight circle, starting back down the drive, as another car drove up with the Count's goon at the wheel. We both stopped our engines and looked at each other. I rolled down the window and waited. I thought he might drive on, but ultimately he lowered his window too and growled, "What do you want?"
"Someone's taken care of your boss."
I held up a hand as he looked like he might come through the window at me. "It wasn't us. We wanted to talk to him, not kill him. But I think it was whoever was trying to blackmail my client. If you want him to go to jail, you'll tell me what you know."
"I don't know nothing. The Count didn't let me meet him. But if I did know..." He clenched his jaw and strangled the steering wheel with his bare hands. "I wouldn't need you to take care of him for me." Suspicion chased anger from his face. "Why should I believe you didn't have anything to do with it?"
"Believe what you want. But if you want revenge, you'll figure out who that guy is and go after him." I turned the ignition back on and got the car moving. There didn't seem to be much else to say.
By the time we dropped off Drew's Jag by my office, it was close to dinner, so we found the ferret where I expected, a cheap coffee shop across the street from the police station. He ate there regularly, sitting at the table in the front and watching the station through the window, waiting for any titillating events to occur.
Drew and I had argued but I finally convinced him to stay in the car, parked down the street, so I was alone. I took the chair, turned it around, and sat down across from him. "Hey, Felix."
He sniffed and kept eating. He really did look like a ferret to me, a small thin man with a sharp pointed nose, always wearing a shabby, gray overcoat and a gray hat. "I need to talk to you."
His eyebrows raised, and he shoveled in a mouthful of meatloaf, one of this joint's few specialties. "I'm very impressed by one of your recent works." I took out one of Drew's pictures, one of the early shots where he and Seth are kissing, locked in an embrace, and placed it on the table with a twenty-dollar bill on top. "You did really excellent work, considering you were in a low-light situation."
"Professional interest, Quentin, or just enjoying one of your own kind?"
For all that the ferret possessed all the social graces of a slug, he was keenly observant of human nature, an attribute that made him an excellent photographer even more than his technical skill. He'd started making snide remarks about my sexuality a few years ago, a fact I had chosen to neither confirm nor deny. "Call it charitable interest in your health, Felix. One of the subjects and the man collecting the money for the blackmailer have both been murdered. Shot dead. You could be next."
He twirled his fork in his mashed potatoes, mixing them with the gravy, creating a gooey white and brown mess. "Not that I'm admitting I took those pictures."
"Let's consider this a hypothetical situation," I suggested readily.
"Hypothetically speaking, if the subject and the money handler are dead, maybe the photographer doesn't know anything useful. Maybe he only knew those two men."
"Hypothetically speaking, maybe the killer's concerned that one of them might have let something slip. Something important. Maybe the killer wants to clean up loose ends. Just to be certain. He strikes me as a thorough guy."
"Hypothetically speaking, maybe it doesn't matter because the photographer can't do anything about it. He may not know anything about who the killer might be."
"That would be regrettable for the photographer. He might get murdered for no good reason."
He drank his milk, looking at the photograph. "In my professional expertise, I can tell you one thing."
He let me wait while he finished his mashed potatoes and gravy mixture. "Those weren't taken with a normal flash. The photographer would have to be able to set up his equipment beforehand. That would be a tricky shoot. At least one of the subjects would have to cooperate, would have to know the pictures were being taken. Maybe you should investigate whoever might have known him."
"Maybe I should."
"In the meantime, I think I'll head down south for a few days. What do you think, would a week be a nice break away from the city?"
"A week would probably do it," I agreed. "You can tell by reading the Chronicle when it's healthy in the city again."
He pocketed the twenty, throwing a few bucks on the table to cover his meal, and we both stood up. I jangled the change in my pockets for a few moments, looking at the menu posted over the counter, my stomach rumbling. The butler's snacks had worn off and I was getting hungry. I could get Drew and we could eat here. The food was decent. Or we could go back to my place and enjoy a private dinner, where we could relax and not have to worry about being observed. Decision made, I started out the door, to hear a shot from a speeding car and catch the ferret as he fell backward, blood crimsoning from a wound in his chest. A woman screamed from the shock as I eased him down to the sidewalk, scanning the passing cars. Rush hour traffic was too heavy to determine where the shot originated. Felix clutched at my lapels, bringing my attention back to him.
"Stay calm, Felix. An ambulance will be here soon." No matter how quickly help arrived, it was likely to be too late for him. The bullet either hit his heart or very near it, and blood was beginning to well out of his mouth.
"You... don't lie ...well. It ... was --." And he was gone.
I closed his sightless eyes, swearing. He had known something but was quite content to let me solve the case without getting involved. His photography could be superb because he knew human nature well, knew how to capture the inner truths hidden within a person's eyes. But he was self-interested and selfish, his own flaws allowing him to see others' deficiencies. This was one time he should have trusted another. Even if honesty hadn't prevented his death, at least I'd be closer to catching his killer.
People were crowding around, a fellow trying to staunch the blood with his handkerchief, a cop dodging cars, trying to cross the street. I faded away. I didn't need to be associated with his death.
Drew was standing by the car as I approached it but got back inside after one look at my face. I got in the driver's seat and started the engine.
"Felix confirmed that he took the pictures. Not outright, but in a way I would understand. And then someone shot him."
The kid's skin was looking pale again. I hated this. He was young and handsome and rich. He had everything going for him. His main concern should be what party to attend tonight, not a stranger's death. "He tried to tell me something but he didn't finish." Traffic was bad, hampered by the crowd and the cops in front of the diner, but we inched away and I sighed in relief. Something went right today.
I placed my hand on his knee and squeezed, slipping my hand up his thigh and leaving it there. He covered my hand with his, and we sat silently until reaching my apartment.
We maintained our quiet as I made dinner, cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. Comfort food, but I figured he could use some comforting. I turned the radio on to drown out our thoughts as we ate and did the dishes. Afterwards, he drifted to my battered piano. "Play for me again?"
I obliged, sitting on the bench, beginning Rubinstein's sweeping Romance in E-flat Major as a tribute to him and the way he made me feel. He sat on the couch, watching and smiling, hopefully understanding what I was trying to tell him through the music. I didn't have a clue what kind of music he liked, so I played Stardust next, still romantic but simpler, more modern. I joined him on the couch afterwards, and we cuddled and kissed. It was good, to spend time together, learning each other slowly with no big rush to the grand finale. I liked his smell, clean and masculine and somehow elegant, the way he felt in my arms, the constant shifts in the colors of his eyes, the way they radiated his feelings and arousal.
The banging on the door was not a welcome interruption. "Who is it?"
"Police, Quent. Open up."
It was Dex, who I trusted to be a good friend... but a cop first. I shoved Drew out of my arms, toward the bedroom. He grabbed his shoes and went. I straightened my appearance, tucking my shirt back in and smoothing my hair as I walked to the door. My expression was neutral with a hint of puzzlement as I opened the door. "Dex, what's up?"
"We're looking for your client, Quent."
"Which one?" Dex tried to advance, but I stayed in the doorway, blocking it. There are some advantages to being built like a football player.
"Funny Quent. The one you've spent the last day with."
"I haven't spent any time with a client today." Technically true, the uncle was my client, not Drew. Deception is much easier than blatant lying.
"Your mom's Irish brogue comes out when you're trying to act innocent, Quent. You need to work on that."
Damn, I'd never realized I had that habit. Flattening my words, I asked, "So what do you want with this mythical client of mine?"
"The DA asked me to look you up and bring him in. Andrew Mackenzie is wanted for questioning in connection with two murders, a tennis coach named Seth and a fellow who runs a shady gambling joint."
I whistled, low and long. "Double murder's a serious business. What do you want to question him about?"
"I'm just following orders, Quent. The DA wants him in, and I'm going to bring him in. I know he's not your favorite person, but I have to do what he says."
"Come on Dex, you must know something. Why does Winters think he might know something about these murders?"
Dex scowled. Cops prefer to gather information. They hate to give it up. But Dex was a friend and honest with me. "Confidential information from his uncle. That's all I know."
"He got any other uncles?"
"Not that I know of, no. But everyone has a few crazy relatives in their closet." So the uncle had visited Mark Winters, ambitious District Attorney and a true Doberman Pinscher. Slim, well-muscled, and dark-haired, Winters was an attack dog in the court room. I had crossed paths with Mark many times before, and it was well known we didn't exactly see eye-to-eye, though no one really knew the extent of our disagreement. Some dirty laundry didn't need to be aired in public.
"So you mind if we take a look around your place?"
"Not at all. Not if you've got a search warrant. I'm a great believer in the Bill of Rights. Makes this country a bastion of freedom."
"I'll be back, Quent. Tell your client he'd be wiser coming in than making us track him down."
"I'll be sure to pass that message along if I ever meet him. Nice talking to you." I waited in the doorway until they'd walked down the hallway and entered the stairway before stepping back into my place, shutting the door, and locking it. Drew was standing in the middle of the living room. "You heard?"
"I don't understand. What could Uncle have said to him?"
"Something that implicated you, apparently."
"Why didn't he talk to me first about whatever it is? Ask me? It doesn't make sense."
"No, it doesn't. Not if he loves you and has your best interests at heart. I think it's time for the three of us to have a little chat." I wanted to hold him, kiss away that look of worry, make slow sweet love all night, teaching him more of the things I'd learned, maybe trying out things I'd only heard about. But delay could mean his death, and he didn't deserve to die.
Only a few lights shone in the mansion when we drove up. I couldn't see Drew's expression well in the darkness but I could hear the tension in his voice. "However this all turns out, I want to thank you. For all that you've done for me. For all that you've showed me."
Injecting a lightness I didn't feel, I said, "Let's not muzzle the dog before he's had a chance to bark."
Preston was in the conservatory, having a drink. He set it down when he saw Drew, rushing forward to hug him in a restrained fashion. "My dear boy, I'm so glad to see you. I've been so worried about you."
"He's been with me."
He was still very cordial, but I didn't like the emotions I was sensing. I'd worked for many questionable clients - people who need private detectives sometimes do have morality issues - but never one who set my teeth on edge like this guy. My slight unease had become outright dislike. "The police are looking for him."
"Yes, I know."
"Uncle... did you talk to them? Did you tell them something?"
"Andrew, I had to. But don't worry about it, I've taken care of things."
He kept facing Drew, trying to cut me out of the conversation. I don't get cut out easily. "If you've taken care of things, why are the police searching for him?"
"Andrew, Martha found these ... vulgar pictures in your room, of you and that young tennis instructor from the country club. Your father's gun was with them. It's been fired lately."
"And you toddled down to the DA and turned them in? Turned in pictures that would incriminate your ward? The weapon he supposedly used?"
"Andrew, you need help. Help that only an experienced professional can give you."
"Uncle, I don't understand. The police want to arrest me, to question me about Seth's murder. Why didn't you talk to me first?"
"I did what I had to do, Andrew, to take care of you. I had a long talk with Mr. Winters. I believe he's agreeable to getting you mental help. You'll have to plead no contest, probably to second-degree murder, but then you can be treated at a facility. I'll make sure it's a good place, a place that will rid you of this unnatural obsession."
Andrew looked shocked and stunned, that same disbelieving expression you'd get if the floor disappeared under your feet but you remained floating in midair. To his credit, he was still thinking. "You want to stay in control of my fortune. That's what this is about."
"Since you'll be incapacitated, I will of course continue administering your parents' estate." Leaning forward, his voice oozing with sincerity, Preston pledged, "But don't worry, Andrew, I promise to protect your inheritance. I shall handle everything."
"Did you set this up? Bribe Seth to sleep with me? The Count to blackmail me? Did you kill them?"
Preston tsked. Literally tsked, shaking his head sadly. "My dear boy. My poor boy. Do you really think that I could orchestrate such a heinous affair? Everyone in society knows how well I take care of you. How concerned I am about you. I shall have to talk to the doctors about this paranoia as well as your unnatural obsession with men. I'm sure they will be able to cure both of your psychoses."
"In a few decades, perhaps," a dry voice said behind me, and I swung around to see Mark Winters standing in the doorway. "I hope you don't mind but I let myself in."
As ever, Mark was dressed impeccably in a conservative suit and understated tie, the epitome of a native-born San Franciscan on the fast track to glory. With his devoted wife, two adorable children, handsome looks, and a spotless reputation as an attorney tough on crime and interested in politics, Winters' name was already floated as a potential Senator in a few more years.
Preston was surprised as he noted, "Mr. Winters, I didn't expect to see you here."
Mark stepped forward, a manila envelope in his hand, large enough to fit 8 x 10 glossies. "I've been thinking about our conversation today, Mr. Preston, and realized there was more to be said."
"Of course, Mr. Winters. Please sit down. I'm sure we can come to an ... understanding ... that will take care of my nephew and satisfy the concerns of our criminal justice system."
Low and bitter, Drew snarled, "I'm not your nephew," but surprisingly, he was the second of my concerns at the moment. I grabbed Mark by the elbow. "I think the two of us need to talk first," I said, manhandling him into the hallway.
Drew followed us, his "what's going on" hitting my ears at the same time as Mark's "don't stop me, Quent."
"I have to, Mark. You've fought too long and sacrificed too much to throw it all away now. Drew, please go back."
They spoke again, both focused on me, Mark's "do you think I could let one of us be destroyed?" sharing air space with Drew's, "this is my life. I have to know what's going on."
I glared at both of them, and they glared at me and each other. "Okay, fine. Mark, this is Andrew Mackenzie. Drew, this is Mark Winters."
"One of us?" Drew questioned.
"Your uncle miscalculated, Andrew. He thought I would help bring you down because Quenton is supporting you, that I would want to get back at Quenton. Everyone involved in this town's legal system knows we've crossed paths."
Drew looked at me, looked at Mark, looked at the way I was still holding him, one hand wrapped around his arm, the other on his chest to push. "You're lovers."
"We were," I admitted. "Years ago. Until Mark needed to get married. To advance his ambitions." The words came out more bitter than I intended, the old wounds still a little tender. I thought I had found the perfect love, someone I could spend my life with, our jobs as police officer and prosecutor justifying regular contact. The pain when I realized some people were capable of placing other concerns above love was almost unbearable, but I lived through it and had eventually accepted it. I had even grown to wish him success, hoping that some day he would be brave enough to make a real difference for our kind. But this was neither the time nor place for him to stand up and be counted. Softer, "Mark, what were you going to do? Shove your homosexuality in his face?"
"I thought I'd burn these photos and negatives in front of his face, the bastard."
"Mark." I grabbed his chin, forcing him to meet my eyes. "You would give him too much power over you. He's manipulated events, killed people to get Drew locked up, just to keep his dough. You can't let him destroy you too."
"I can't stand by and let him destroy the kid."
"Making a grand gesture in front of him won't help, Mark. He'll just go the Police Commissioner and create a scandal. We could all three wind up in jail. At best, you'd be disbarred and I'd lose my license. You know there's evidence to be found if someone searches. We're lucky that he took our public fights as truth."
We froze as we heard low voices murmuring in the other room, and glanced over. "Someone must have entered through the garden," Drew commented.
"As long as he doesn't come out here."
"Then what can I do, Quent?"
"Stall for us. Tell him you have to consult with the Commissioner on something this important, that you need more time to investigate, time to find more proof. Give us time to find proof of his involvement, some way to turn the tables on him."
"I don't like it, Quent." Shaking the envelope, he said, "I can't sit on evidence like this for long."
"Just a few days, Mark. It's the only favor I've ever asked of you."
It was Mark's turn to look at me, to look at Drew. "You're lovers."
I reached back and Drew took my hand, stepping to stand by me. "Yes," I said. "I love him. And I can't lose him, not now. I - "
The loud thunk startled all of us, and I stopped talking. It repeated, sounding like a watermelon being smashed. Mark and I knew that noise and rushed toward the conservatory, but we were too late for Virgil Preston. His head had been smashed into a bloody pulp, the Count's silver headed cane connecting with deadly force. We didn't bother checking for a heartbeat; with blows that severe, death was most likely instantaneous. Instead we ran for the conservatory door, barreling after the murderer, but when we reached the hedge that surrounded the property, we could only see a quick glimpse of taillights disappearing down the street.
Drew was sitting on his knees, on the floor, staring at Preston's body when we got back to the house. "I've called the police."
"Good," I said, grabbing the envelope from his hand and heading into the other room. Mark and Drew were right behind me as I set it aflame with my lighter, tossing it into the fireplace. "Your set."
Drew handed them over, and I added them to the burning pile, using the poker to ensure that every scrap burned, as I talked to Mark. "Now here's the story. Preston met with you today. He wanted to talk about the murders, saying he might have information for you. But he was nervous, uncomfortable, and left before he said anything. You came out here tonight, hoping that he would speak at his own home. We all arrived together, and heard him murdered as we walking down the hall. We rushed to help but were too late."
"And why were you here?"
"Drew came to me." Facing him, still poking at the photos, I said, "You were worried about your uncle, that he was meeting with strange characters, going to the Count's gambling house. You thought your uncle was in trouble and wanted to help him. You even went and gambled yourself, to see if you could find out anything before you realized you needed professional help. We came tonight to talk to Preston, but he'd been killed, obviously in revenge for the Count's death."
Mark considered it. "Rough, but it could work."
Sirens were screaming outside. "Just make sure we don't get questioned too closely tonight. Get the cops onto the Count and his men. They must have a boatload of illegal activities to investigate. And the photographer, Felix Fischer. Preston killed him too. We'll have the details refined by tomorrow and come down to the station to make our statements."
The police were knocking, so Mark left to let them in while I finished poking, spreading the embers around as Drew spoke. "Uncle was really trying to send me to a mental hospital. For the rest of my life."
"Yes." I took a good look at him. He seemed in a daze, not quite believing the events of the last few moments. Preston's duplicity didn't surprise me, but it must have been devastating to Drew, to learn that a trusted paternal figure was trying to stab him in the back and toss him out like old garbage. I would have liked to kiss him for reassurance and consolation, but I could hear Mark leading the officers to the conservatory. Someone would walk in soon. Risking exposure was foolish but I did take his hand and squeeze, my eyes communicating my love and faith that we would get through this mess together. "He can't hurt you now."
Drew would be safe. The real villain had already paid for his deeds.
The sirens brought the butler from his room on the third floor. I didn't see them, but the cook and the maids woke too, and took the backstairs to get to the kitchen. Mark sent the butler off with instructions to bring back coffee first, and then the other servants one by one for interviewing. Coffee, that wonderful elixir loaded with caffeine, kept us going for the next several hours as the police and forensic boys tramped in and out of the house, and Mark huddled with the lead officers on the case, discussing their investigative strategy and questioning the servants. Drew and I stayed in the library where I refined our story, making Drew repeat it several times. I stepped out occasionally, checking that the boys in blue were kept busy at their tasks and aware how distraught Andrew was at losing his uncle.
And distraught he was. I didn't have to make that up. He'd been through a lot of shocks these last few days, and the final revelations and brutal tragedy left him in a state of disbelief. I'd seen other men like that, ones who'd come home from the great war, withdrawn into a shell. Drew was polite and paid attention when I spoke, but otherwise he sat by the fireplace, staring ahead, the bleakness of his eyes reflecting that his soul was shattered by truths he hadn't wanted to know.
The fog was obscuring the beginning of dawn when I took my leave with Mark and the last of the police officers. I hated to go but I had no justifiable excuse to stay. I walked out with the last of the cops, giving one last look to Drew standing in the hallway as the butler shut the door. I had to wonder where this left our relationship, now that he was saved from blackmail and no longer needed my professional help. I'd said I loved him, but he hadn't responded. Could he come to love me back? Or was my appearance in his life forever associated with tonight's horror?
Hope came swiftly. The phone was ringing as I arrived home. I fumbled with the lock, hoping it wouldn't stop, but it kept ringing and ringing until I grabbed the black handle. Drew's muted voice came through the wire. "I didn't want you to leave."
"I didn't want to go."
"I just can't believe he'd planned all that, planned for so long to take control of my money, permanently."
"Money makes people a little crazy."
"Did you... mean what you said?"
"Yes," I said. "I love you." Roughly, simply. He either believed me or he didn't.
"I thought maybe you were trying to make sure Mr. Winters helped me. You two ... seemed very tense."
"Mark was an important part of my life. In the past. I wouldn't lie to him about my feelings."
"Nothing. I'm just very tired. There's so much to take care of now."
"Get some rest. And call me if you need me. Any time."
"Thank you. Good night."
"I love you, Drew," I said swiftly.
He hung up. Something was wrong. I could feel it in my guts, cold as ice in Scotch. Honesty might have been a mistake. I hadn't even realized the truth myself until the words leapt out of my lips. I could barely believe what I'd heard myself say; why should Drew accept it? I'd only known him two days. He was rich and young while I was old and broke. Would he believe my love was true?
After a few brief and uneasy hours of sleep, I headed down to the police station to give my statement. Though Dex was the investigator on the case, I was ushered to a new guy I'd never met. I worried for a moment, but then realized Dex was probably already listening to Drew. I doubted he slept any better than I had. I tried to make the story sound natural, keeping to the truth where I could, hoping that everything was going well with Drew.
He was waiting for me when I left the station. He looked like hell, my battered thoroughbred. "You didn't sleep?"
"I couldn't. I started going through uncle's desk."
"What did you find?"
He pulled a crumpled envelope from his pocket, handing it over. I took out the letter and read it. My words were as hollow as my feelings. "You've been drafted."
"I'm almost over due. Over due. They'll send the MPs for me soon." He laughed, a little hysterically. "I wanted to fight. I wanted to go. Uncle wouldn't let me. And then he got that - and couldn't let me go. I might get myself killed. And my death would mean he'd have to give up my money."
Damn the streets and passersby and not being able to hold him. "He must have already had his plans in motion."
"Oh, the blackmail already started before he got the notice. Seth was bribed, the pictures were taken... but then he had to advance his timetable, didn't he?"
"Drew." I risked a reassuring hand on his shoulder, shaking him lightly. "Calm down."
He took a shaky breath. "It's alright. I'll be alright. This is what I wanted, isn't it? I've talked to Aunt Katherine. She and my cousin David will fly out. They'll run the company. I told her about you, told her that I wanted you to investigate Preston and my parents. She'll be expecting you. She'll pay all your expenses. I don't even know what you charge. I barely know you and now I have to leave."
"I'll enlist. We can be together."
"No!" He gripped my forearm. We were physically connected in two places but falling farther and farther apart. "There's no guarantee we'd be together. I want to think of you here, safe. Finding out the truth for me. Waiting for me. Promise me."
"I promise," I said, already feeling the emptiness of losing him. "I'll be here, waiting for you."
"Good," he smiled, looking stronger. He squeezed tighter and released my arm, picking up the suitcase from the step below. "I'll be back."
"Send me an address. I'll write you."
"I will." And he walked away, taking my love with him.
Life was flat and empty with Drew gone. In a few short days, he'd become the most important person in my world. I still had a business to run, a living to earn, but I'd just lost the man who could have been the love of my life to a fight greater then either of us. I accepted it. I even understood it. But I didn't like it.
And if Drew lost his life after spending his last few days as a civilian worrying about blackmail and murder... well, I'd always wondered if someone in hell could make the afterlife even worse for a fellow inmate. I would find out.
I introduced myself to Aunt Katherine and cousin David, as Drew requested, and took a shine to them, particularly to her. She was a no-nonsense woman, concerned about her nephew and unflinchingly desiring the truth about her brother's death. We discussed my investigation and argued about the fee, but I won. I wasn't going to take Drew's money.
Then to occupy my time and thoughts, I threw myself into investigating Preston, worrying at his life like a dog trying to get the last taste of marrow from a bone, crunching and chomping away until only splinters remained. He'd killed Drew's parents. I was sure of it, even if I could never prove it in court. He'd encouraged them to vacation by driving the scenic but dangerous Highway 1, and arranged for the brakes to fail. The evidence was gone, the people who might have been witnesses all dead... every loose shred carefully swept away. If he'd had more time, I'm sure that the scraps tying him to the framing of Drew would have disappeared too. But time ran out for him and I searched, tore, and teased until I had a case that would have stood up in court. His acquaintance with Seth, his private discussions with the director of a mental hospital, his business dealings with the Count. I found everything that he never had the chance to make vanish. I had a case that Mark could have sold to a judge and jury.
I might not have the satisfaction of facing Preston with the truth, but at least I could give it to Drew.
The day was young and I was 37. But I didn't feel my age. I don't think anyone in the whole nation did. The war was over, our boys were coming home, and the entire country was celebrating. I was on my way to work, still walking up San Francisco's precipitous streets, but in a much better neighborhood. I'd become friends with Aunt Katherine while reporting on my investigations. She liked to listen to my piano playing, and when she was new to town, I'd escorted her a few times to the social functions thrust on her as head of MacKenzie's. The experience was odd for me, mingling at parties and getting my picture snapped for the paper, but society people had flocked to me, and business was booming. They had the same problems as normal folks, cheating spouses and runaway children, but added joys like thieving employees and fraudulent investors. And except for the occasional skinflint, they paid much better. I was successful enough to keep the old office open and hire partners, rotating my time between the two locales, working on the most interesting cases, helping the people who I decided most needed my aid.
I'd given Maggie her choice, and she'd jumped at the chance to move to the new office. She was an inveterate gossip, and loved the connection to the hoi polloi. And she still made a mean cup of coffee.
"Client's waiting, Quent."
She didn't give more details, just a secret smile, one of those smiles woman can do, as if they could reveal all the secrets of the world but won't because we simple men wouldn't understand them anyway. My heart beat faster as I crossed swiftly to my office door, halting momentarily with my hand on the knob. I glanced back at Maggie, and she was watching me, still smiling. Taking a deep breath, I turned the handle.
He was silhouetted by the light coming in the windows, making it difficult to see his features. The body was leaner, the hair shorter, the posture more military-stiff, but I knew who he was as well as I knew the smell of my mother's pot roast. My heart forgot to beat and my breath died as the world stopped turning. He stepped forward, the lamp lighting his face, and time began again.
"Mr. Dane, isn't it?"
"Yes, I'm Quentin Dane. Can I help you?"
My legs barely functioned but I crossed to my desk and sat down in my chair, turning slightly to view him. They say there's nothing like a man in a uniform, a statement with which I could certainly agree. Drew was all spit and polish, his attire spotless, the creases in his pants sharp enough to cut a finger.
"I'm looking for a man."
"Any particular man?"
"Definitely. I have very exacting requirements." His standing posture might imitate a valiant general, but his swagger was all frontier gunslinger. He stood with his rump leaning against my desk, his hands resting on his thighs, his legs close to mine.
"And those are?"
"Do you want the physical or mental?"
"Oh, I think I'll need to know them all. I'm very thorough in my job."
"Your reputation in that area has preceded you, Mr. Dane. That's why I came to you. I knew you were the man to satisfy me."
His hands were subtly moving on his thighs, making it difficult to focus on his words. His thumbs were pointing toward his groin, and the bulge that said he was happy to see me. I understood what he was telling me with this pretense of being a stranger. He wasn't the young man I'd known three years ago. The war had changed him, hardening his body, molding his personality, and polishing his courage. I squirmed, incredibly attracted to this new Andrew, spreading my own thighs so he could appreciate my reciprocal reaction. "So... physical and mental?"
"I'm looking for a tall man with broad shoulders and beautiful blue eyes. I need a man who's physically well ... developed ... in every respect." He kicked off his shoes as he spoke, pushing back to sit fully on my desk, bringing one foot to rest on my thigh, his hand tracing circles around his knee.
I couldn't prevent a little panting but struggled to stay calm. "And mental?"
"Courageous, intelligent, strong, dependable..."
"I think I know the perfect man for you."
His eyes widened in mock astonishment. "You're very fast, Mr. Dane. I hadn't expected such efficient service." His foot slid over to my penis, and I reared out of my chair to lock him in a clinch, forcing his leg between my own as I brought our bodies together, kissing him as if I needed his lips to breathe. Then we were kissing and touching and caressing and shoving hard against each other, desperate to release our pent-up passion. I felt his legs around mine, pulling me onto the desk as he fell backwards. As the phone and lamp went flying, I was grateful that I kept few items on the polished wood surface. Andrew was ripping at my clothes as I landed on top of him and I was returning the favor, undressing him, dying to explore the body I'd so missed these last lonely years.
I was tearing at anything I could reach, but Andrew must have been more orderly in his exertions, as he got my pants loosened and underwear shoved down, then rolled us over so he was on top and could do the same for himself as I kissed and sucked at his chest. Sitting on my hips, he impaled himself on my cock, forcing me fully into him, before stopping and taking a long breath. "I've missed this so much. Missed you, missed your love."
"Everything I am is yours." The words sounded ridiculously sentimental for me, but they were truth.
He clenched his buttocks to reward me, and I could have come right then and there, from the pleasure of mere seconds within that impossibly tight warmth. I banged my head on the wood and gritted my teeth. "Ride me, dammit."
"Oh, I intend to. Every day." He smiled, a wicked laughing smile, and began a slow, steady rocking, taking his time, his hands stroking on my chest, not particularly coordinated but needing to touch, to have as much connection as we could. I responded in kind, running my hands over his chest, down his arms, back up his sides. The service had been draining on his body; his muscles were well defined but too lean. I would have to put some flesh back on his bones with long luxurious mornings spent in bed.
But right then I didn't care about the future, only about the present. Only about Drew's body clinging to my own, the feel of my cock being squeezed over and over again. The grip of my own hand when I masturbated to fantasies of Drew had been a nightlight compared to the furnace of flames that was the reality of having him on top of me, holding me within him.
The tip of his tongue was pressed against his top front teeth, his mouth open as he breathed in tune to every wiggle, every thrust and grind of his hips. He looked as dazed as he had on the day we said goodbye, but dazed in a good way, dazed from sex and love and more pleasure than a body ought to be able to survive.
I hooked my heels on the handles of two desk drawers, giving myself the leverage to thrust up into him. With my hands, I caressed his hard length and balls, driving him higher, wanting to return the sensations he was giving me. With a loud yell that I hoped Maggie didn't hear, he was covering my chest with his eruption. I arched my back, driving deep one last time, and emptied myself into him, into my love. My love, who'd come back to me.
The couch was too small for both of us - even smaller than my bed we'd slept together in, so long ago - but such practical considerations weren't going to stop us from cuddling. My feet dangled off one end and his body was forced to sprawl on top of mine as we laid together a long time, content to gently stroke and kiss. I found each scar he'd mentioned in his letters, most redder and longer than he'd described but thankfully, none severe enough to get him sent home in a box. "You're too thin."
"You can fatten me up."
"You wrote that you finished your research on Virgil and my parents' death."
I'd written that two years ago and he'd never directly responded to that note. "I have a file for you."
"Was it Virgil? Did he kill my parents?"
"I'm sure of it, though I couldn't prove it in a court of law. He tied up all the ends very nicely. It took a long time to unravel them. He wanted your father's money and revenge on your mother for loving another."
"For choosing another, maybe. But he couldn't have truly loved her."
No, not in the way we knew love, love that cares for the other person's happiness above all else. I kissed his temple and didn't argue.
"And he tried to destroy my life, to keep the money."
"The draft saved you. He lost his finesse when he ran out of time. His connections to Seth and to the Count, and the Count's connection to Felix were easier to find. If you hadn't been called up..." I squeezed him hard, not wanting to dwell on the vision of Drew, imprisoned for the rest of his life in a looney bin, lonely, isolated, and drugged.
"You saved me. Not the draft."
My answer was a kiss on his lips, and then we were thumping to the ground and making love again, rubbing our bodies together, our kisses wet, messy and desperate as we tried to satiate years of loneliness and commit that we would never be separated again.
Eventually we rose, helping each other to dress. Drew began setting my desk to rights as I opened the window to let cool air erase the telltale scent of sex. I turned back to see him holding the carved wooden box and the letters that had fallen out of it. "You keep my letters on your desk?"
"Half of them. The other half is at home."
"You read them a lot." He traced the creases that had grown deeper as I unfolded the letters each day and refolded them exactly as he had sent them.
I picked up a pencil that had rolled under the desk and dropped it back in the holder. "Every day. Every night."
"I tried to read yours every day. Some days... there was too much mud or fighting or not enough light. It became my ritual when I got to safety. See to my men, see to our equipment, then read your letters. I would read what you were doing and remember why I was fighting. Why I was determined to get home and return to you. You kept me alive."
My voice almost too thick to speak, I croaked, "I'm glad."
His smile was pure sunshine, lighting my office brighter than a thousand watt light bulb.
I kissed him lightly, needing another taste of that luscious mouth. "Come on, soldier. Let's go celebrate."
"Yes," he said, stroking the side of my face. "Let's celebrate the rest of our lives together."
~ the end ~