"Lassiter!" the Chief bellowed out for, oh, the ninth time that morning.
Carlton sighed and rolled his chair back from his desk and trudged into her office. The Chief was slumped over a gallon-sized Starbucks cup, her hair sticking out in all directions, as if it had been styled by a hand mixer. She sported dark smudges beneath her eyes and baby throw up on the lapel of her jacket. The entire squad room was busily counting the seconds until her nephew came back from his snowboarding trip to Big Bear and resumed his manny duties.
Of course now that Carlton had come running, the Chief seemed to forget she'd even called for him. She ripped open a handful of sugar packets, with more crazy eyed intensity than some speed freaks Carlton had known, and dumped the entire contents into the cup, scowling as she stirred it, whipping up a good froth. It looked unnervingly like she was giving her latte a spanking.
Carlton considered clearing his voice or venturing, You wanted to see me, Chief? But then thought twice about it. You didn't walk into the middle of a firefight with no ammunition in your gun and a bulls-eye painted on your chest, no matter how crazy brave you might be.
Eventually, the Chief glanced up from her coffee. "There you are." She frowned. "What took you so long?"
He opened his mouth to protest, but then quickly shut it again, because clearly there was no winning this one. "What can I do for you?" he asked, all professional courtesy.
She pushed a case file at him. "Remember Pinky Ellison?"
Carlton nodded. "Hard to forget someone you busted with twelve grams of heroin in the trunk of his car, hidden beneath his arsenal of vibrating butt plugs."
The Chief knocked back half her latte in a hefty gulp. "Pinky made a deal, probation in exchange for testifying against his supplier. The trial starts next week, but apparently he got stage fright. I realize you're short a partner until O'Hara gets back from vacation, but I need you to track down Pinky Ellison."
Carlton pushed his shoulders back. "No problem, Chief. I can handle it on my own."
"I'm sure you can, but—" She waved her hand, beckoning, and Carlton turned to look, as Shawn Spencer came sauntering into the office. "Mr. Spencer's better half is also out of town, it happens. I thought the two of you could work together on this one."
Spencer threw his arms open wide. "Lassie! Come to papa."
Carlton wheeled around to the Chief. "No. Absolutely not. O'Hara will back from Cancun on Monday. I can—"
"I really hope Jules brings me a sombrero," Spencer interjected. "I'm trying to cultivate a Juan Valdes kind of thing."
Carlton lowered his voice, painfully close to begging the Chief, "Don't make me."
"Oh, come on, Lassie. We'll be epic. Like the Hardy Boys. Or, hey, Cagney and Lacey. With those sensible shoes of yours, I don't think I need to point out which one of us is Lacey."
Carlton took a deep, cleansing, I'm not going to shoot him in front of the Chief breath and resumed pleading his case, "I know Pinky Ellison. I can find him without any help. Spencer isn't even a police officer."
The Chief shrugged. "No, but he did fill out the paperwork saying we're not responsible if he gets himself killed. That's good enough for me."
"Thanks, Chief," Spencer deadpanned. "It's nice to know you care."
"But—" Carlton started.
The Chief pointed her finger, a surprisingly intimidating gesture. "But nothing. Take the file and take Spencer. Go check out Pink Ellison's hangouts. Bring back the D.A.'s star witness. Got it?"
Carlton nodded, but only because it seemed the safest response.
Spencer clapped his hands together, a spark of glee in his eyes that had no place in the serious business of law enforcement. "Lassie, looks like the start of a beautiful friendship."
He followed Carlton out to the car, stepping on his heel in his eagerness, or possibly just to be annoying, babbling away like a yappy little dog. Carlton fastened his seat belt and glared until Spencer, who had already thrown himself headlong into the case file, did the same.
"So, what did this guy do?" Spencer asked, flipping pages. "Drugs, huh?"
"Let's get a few things straight," Carlton took the same tone he used to read people their rights.
"This guy must be a major kingpin for the Chief to have her panties—" He held up his hand. "Sorry, her respectable married undergarments all up in a twist."
"Stay out of my way. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your head down."
Spencer pulled out a photograph of Pinky Ellison, dressed in leather, with a chain around his neck that looked as if it weighed twenty pounds at least. "A biker dude? Cool!"
"Under no circumstances will you pull one of your little 'I see dead people' stunts when I'm interviewing witnesses."
"You know, I've often been mistaken for a biker dude myself," Spencer said, with a perfectly straight face.
Carlton pulled up in front of Bottoms Up, one of Pinky's hangouts. "And most of all," he pointed a finger, although it didn't have quite the same menace as when the Chief did it, "any time I tell you to stay in the car, you stay in the car."
He opened his door, and Spencer bounded out as well. Carlton gave him a hard look.
"What?" Spencer said innocently. "You didn't say to stay in the car. You said to stay in the car when you said to stay in the car. Two entirely different things, Lassie. If we're going to work together, you're really going to need to work on the communication skills. Besides, it's a biker bar. No way you're going in there without me."
"A biker bar, huh? The spirits tell you that?" Carlton said dryly.
The stainless steel doors were covered in fingerprints, and Carlton added his as he pushed his way inside. The place was nearly dark, and he stopped, waiting for his eyes to adjust. The sounds of heavy breathing came from nearby, and more distantly there was moaning, and someone calling out, "Do it, do it, come on, just do it."
Carlton could feel Spencer shifting uneasily, and then a sharp, echoing thwap made him jump. The dark was less impenetrable now, and Carlton could make out a man in one corner bent over a sawhorse getting paddled, another dressed only in an o-ring gag, down on his hands and knees, with admirers lined up waiting to use his mouth, another in a swing, begging hoarsely for someone to fuck him.
"Holy mother of sado-masochism!" Apparently, Spencer's eyesight had also adjusted.
Carlton plowed through the crowd to the manager's office in back, Spencer practically glued to his side, running his mouth as usual, "Just tell me they wash those enema nozzles after they use them."
"Shut up!" Carlton hissed, before barging into the office.
The club's manager, Jace Samuels, was none to pleased to see the police. "Oh, come on. This better not be another raid. I run a legit business here."
"Is that a fact? Then why did I just spot three of your patrons using controlled substances?" Carlton asked coolly.
Samuels threw his hands up. "I can't help what people do! They didn't get the drugs in my club. No dealing on the premises. No exceptions. Period."
Carlton crossed his arms over his chest and put on his unimpressed face.
Samuels sighed. "Okay, okay, what do you want?"
"Just a little cooperation, Mr. Samuels." Carlton held out the picture of Pinky Ellison. "Seen him around?"
Samuels shook his head. "Not lately. Used to be a regular, though."
"Any idea where he might have gone? People he associates with?"
"Like I told you, I don't get in my customer's personal business," Samuels said. "But if it'll get the cops off my back, I'll call you if I see him."
Carlton took the photograph back with a satisfied little smile. "Now that wasn't so hard, was it?"
They were almost out the door when Spencer's compulsive need to be embarrassing and obnoxious came spilling out. "Just one more question." He whirled back around to face Samuels, doing his best Perry Mason impersonation. "Isn't it true that supercalifragilisticexpealidocious makes a less than optimal safe word?"
Samuels' eyebrows knit together. "What does that have to do with Pinky Ellison?"
Spencer shrugged. "I just like to be prepared. It's the Boy Scout in me."
Carlton grabbed him by the arm and manhandled him out of the office and all the way to the car.
They continued on to more of Pinky's known hangouts, another sex club, several gay bars, and the Target in Ventura. After the third stop, Spencer gave Carlton a long, assessing look. "You know, Lassie, you're strangely comfortable in the land of Dorothy."
Carlton just scowled at him.
They whittled their list down to one last bar, and Carlton was starting to entertain the bleak vision of returning to the station with exactly nothing to report to the Chief.
Fergus, the bartender on duty, was about as helpful as everyone else had been. "Nah. Ain't seen him."
Carlton sighed as he handed over his card. "If he shows up—"
Spencer let out an ear-splitting yowl, and began to shake and stamp his feet and arch his back as if he was doing the limbo with an invisible bar and music only he could hear.
Fergus scratched his head. "He spastic or something?"
Carlton's mouth pulled into an unhappy line. "Or something."
"I'm getting an image—" Spencer gripped his forehead, eyes squeezed tightly shut. "It's coming closer. Closer. It's a word." His mouth formed a circle, then pursed, then turned up at one corner, as if he had an unfortunate facial tic or was possibly about to collapse from a stroke. "—ouse, —ouse, louse?" He shook his head. "I can't quite—"
"House?" the bartender suggested.
Spencer shook his head. "No, no, it's—"
"No." He rubbed at his temples. "If I can just focus my psychic laser sight—"
"Blouse!" Fergus shouted out like a game show contestant.
Carlton rolled his eyes.
Spencer snapped his fingers. "Scorpion!"
Fergus scrunched up his forehead. "That don't rhyme with louse."
"What's that on your arm?" Spencer pointed.
"Nothing." Fergus went suddenly tight-lipped.
"Get over here." Carlton grabbed him by the arm and pushed up the sleeve of his T-shirt. There was a scorpion curled around his biceps, tattooed in blue ink.
"Funny," Spencer said. "Pinky Ellison also has a scorpion tattoo, only it's curved the other way. If you put the two together, you'd get something that looks suspiciously like an infinity symbol." He shook his head. "Fergus, Fergus, Fergus, I wouldn't have taken you for such a hopeless romantic."
"Me and Pinky, we're forever, man!" Fergus got rather worked up about it. "Forever!"
Carlton whipped out his handcuffs. "You'll have plenty of time to write him love poems in prison. Aiding and abetting a fugitive is a felony."
"Come on, man," Fergus begged. "Cut me a break. I can't go back inside. My chi gets all stopped up in prison."
"Well—" Carlton made a show of his hesitation. "Maybe, I can help you out. But," he pointed his finger, and this time, there was much more of the Chief's mojo behind it, "you've got to help me first."
Fergus sighed. "Pinky ain't a bad guy."
Carlton jingled the handcuffs. "Cooperation or incarceration. What's it going to be?"
Fergus hung his head, defeated. "Pinky was all freaked out because word was the guys he turned on were coming for him. Didn't have much confidence that you cops could keep him from getting a bullet in the head. Went up to Freedom to lay low. He's got friends there."
Carlton put the handcuffs back in his pocket. "If you're wasting my time, I'll be back."
On the way out to the car, Spencer said breezily, "No need to thank me, Lassie. The spirits sense your gratitude."
Carlton locked his jaw and ignored the gloating. This was what really boiled his butt about Spencer—well, one of the things—that he might have made a decent detective if he just had a little discipline. But no, Spencer couldn't go to the academy and become a cop like everybody else who had crime-solving in their blood.
"So, my place first or yours?" Spencer asked, fastening his seatbelt. "I'll need an overnight bag if I'm going to Freedom. I only sleep in my clothes when there's serious tequila involved."
Carlton glared as he fished his phone out of his pocket. "You're not going anywhere." He speed-dialed and reported in to the Chief. "We need to inform the local authorities in Freedom that I'll be coming up there—"
The Chief interrupted, and Carlton was more convinced than ever that sleep deprivation caused brain damage.
He turned his head and lowered his voice, "You can't possibly mean that I should take—" The Chief's insistence blared in his ear, and he had to hold the phone away. "Fine, fine." He sighed as he snapped the phone closed.
Spencer pumped his fist. "Road trip!"
Carlton had never been one for religion. Heaven and hell were much too abstract for his practical mind, and yet the five-hour drive up to Freedom with Spencer only an elbow's distance away gave him an inkling of what an eternity of damnation might well be like.
Spencer pawed through the sack of junk food he'd insisted on buying when they'd stopped for gas. There were already Ho-Ho crumbs scattered all over the floor mat, and now he was busily crunching away on some Doritos, without the least consideration for the upholstery, bright orange cheese dust going everywhere.
"So, I'm thinking we need matching T-shirts. You know, since we're working together now. Partners. Well, temporary partners. It's not like we're dumping Gus and Jules. Although Gus did pick a pharmaceutical convention in Des Moines over psychic detecting with me, so it would serve him right if I did get a new sidekick. Oh! Oh! You know what we should do? Go to one of those photo booths and get our picture taken in our matching T-shirts. Dorito?"
He held out the bag. Carlton ignored it.
"Hey, what do you want to do first when we get to Freedom? Maybe check out the hotel's spa, get some massages and facials. You really should exfoliate more, Lassie." He squinted at Carlton's pores.
Carlton tightened his hands on the wheel. "We're working, Spencer. Remember?"
He waved his hand. "It's late, Lassie. Not much we can do tonight. I say we call up room service for some hot fudge sundaes, hit the Captain Morgan in the mini bar, and watch pay per view. Oh, I'm sure it won't hold a candle to your collection of midget mud wrestling videos back home, but, hey, you have to make do when you're on the road."
Carlton stared straight ahead, his tension headache making the back of his neck feel like an overstretched rubber band. At last, Freedom's city limits came into sight. He pulled in at the first Motel 6.
Spencer made a disbelieving face. "Don't they have a Four Seasons?"
"I'm on a per diem," Carlton got out of the car, "and you're on your own."
"Aw, c'mon, Lassie. Be a sport." Spencer nagged him all the way to the office. "I'll just have to bill the department for expenses, and how is that going to look to the Chief? Like you don't care about conserving precious resources. Tell me the Chief's not a big fan of frugality."
Carlton forced a smile for the man behind the front desk. "I need a room. With one bed. For one person."
"Oh, fine, be that way." Spencer knocked Carlton out of the way to speak with the clerk, "What's your policy on barter? Because I do a mean rendition of Okalahoma, a sort of one-man review, always leaves them begging for more." He flung out his arms and broke into The Surry with the Fringe On Top.
"Spencer!" Carlton gritted his teeth.
"Just picture it: the magic of musical theater livening up the complimentary continental breakfast," Spencer said, in between bars.
"All right!" Carlton raised his voice above the singing. "A room with two double beds."
The music came to an abrupt stop. "And could we get some extra towels?" Spencer said to the clerk. "Lassie here likes to take long bubble baths."
"Ignore him." Carlton handed over his credit card.
The clerk gave them keys and a funny look. They drove down to room number 146 and carried their stuff inside.
Spencer tumbled onto one of the beds, hands clasped behind his head. "So, what do you usually do for fun in the evenings? Macrame? Building model planes out of Popsicle sticks?"
Carlton narrowed his eyes. "We need to get an early start in the morning. I suggest we turn in."
He took a step toward the bathroom, and Spencer leaped up and darted ahead of him. "Beauty before age."
Carlton let out a sigh as the bathroom door banged closed.
He had no idea what Spencer was doing in there, didn't want to know, but there was a lot of gargling and gurgling and some disturbingly loud thumping. Finally, Spencer breezed out, wearing a T-shirt and a pair of "rub the magic lantern" boxer shorts.
"Am I minty?" He puffed a breath in Carlton's face.
Carlton turned his head away. The thing was: he could shoot Spencer, and it wouldn't cost the department a dime thanks to that waiver he'd signed.
By the time he'd finished up in the bathroom, Spencer was sprawled on his bed, studying the case file. His gaze flicked up, taking in Carlton's pajamas. "I was expecting something with feet and one of those little flaps in the back."
"Getting any psychic visions?" Carlton laid on the sarcasm. "Maybe Elvis can tell us where Pinky Ellison is hiding."
Spencer gave Carlton an assessing look. "Okay. Fine. No help from the great beyond. Just simple logic. This Pinky guy has a serious love for the phallic-shaped silicone, right? A dozen butt plugs found in his car. Six frankly terrifying dildos in his apartment. A partridge in a pear tree, quite possibly the kinkiest thing of all." He held up a hand when Carlton made an impatient face. "My point is that Freedom just so happens to be home to the world's largest emporium of sexwares catering to a gay male clientele." At Carlton's raised eyebrow, he added, "Gus told me. He knows these things."
"Mmm-hmm," Carlton said non-commitally.
"So, what do you think?"
Carlton considered. "I think we should start there in the morning."
Spencer crooked a smile. "Gee, Lassie, that's almost like a compliment coming from you."
Carlton scowled. "Go to sleep, Spencer."
BoyToys R' Us took up an entire city block and seemed even larger than that with its day-glo colors and towering mural of pouting pretty boys. Inside, the layout reminded Carlton of suburban discount stores, the kind that sold gallon-sized jars of mayonnaise alongside riding lawn mowers. Only here the signs that hung above the wide aisles with the tall shelves directed shoppers to "Penis Jewelry" and "Fucking Machines."
Carlton headed toward the checkout counter to ask for the manager, but Spencer made a detour, picked up a box decorated with a bright yellow starburst, The StretchMaster! Finally, affordable penis enlargement. "Lassie, this just might be the answer to that little problem of yours."
Carlton grabbed the box and shoved it back onto the shelf.
"But there's a money back guarantee," Spencer protested.
Carlton let out a deep, long, why me? sigh.
The store manager barely looked old enough to drive, or maybe that was just Carlton's age showing. The kid had spiky hair, silvery blue at the tips, black lipstick, and some piercings in places that were truly wince-worthy. He appeared utterly unsurprised when Carlton produced a badge.
"I'd like to ask you some questions," Carlton squinted at his nametag, "Takeshi."
"Whatever." Takeshi sounded decidedly bored.
Carlton showed him the picture of Pinky Ellison. "Recognize this guy?"
Takeshi nodded. "Yeah. Haven't seen him around lately, though."
"Know anybody who might have?"
"I guess maybe Rolfe. They used to live together, until Rolfe figured out that Pinky isn't exactly the happily ever after type. Not that Rolfe ever really got over him."
"You know where we can find this Rolfe?"
Takeshi pointed to a stack of flyers on the counter: Erotic Enhancement and Your Relationship. Weekly encounter sessions. Couples only. There was a phone number.
"Rolfe sells our stuff at the sessions," Takeshi explained. "Some guys prefer it to coming into the store."
Carlton tucked the flyer into his jacket pocket. "Thanks."
Takeshi smirked. "It's not like Rolfe's going to tell you anything. He might be pissed off at Pinky, but he hates cops."
Carlton pulled out his phone en route to the car. "Yeah, Mallory, it's Lassiter. I need an address to go with a phone number." He read it off the flyer and jotted down the information.
"Flashing your badge and your boyish charm isn't going to get you very far with someone who hates cops," Spencer said. "And I say this as a big fan of your boyish charm."
"It's called procedure," Carlton informed him stiffly.
Spencer rolled his eyes. "It's called screwing up the best lead we have."
"And I suppose you have a better idea?" Carlton challenged.
Spencer's smile radiated smugness. "Don't I always?"
He flipped open his phone and assumed a pitiful expression straight out of a soap opera, down to the quivering lip. "Um, hi, is this Rolfe? I got your number from BoyToys R' Us." His voice broke. "Sorry. It's just my snookie puss and I are having some problems. There's this Samoan mud wrestler, and I'm pretty sure they're— and he never tells me I'm pretty anymore. Please help me get my snookie puss back?" His face brightened. "This afternoon? Great! See you then."
Carlton narrowed his eyes. "I'd better not be the snookie puss in this scenario."
Spencer grinned insufferably. "It's couples only, Lassie. And come on! You have snookie puss written all over you."
Rolfe's house was on a quiet street, the kind of neighborhood where a white picket fence would have fit right in. He answered the door, short and slight, studious-looking in dark-rimmed glasses, not the most obvious match for Pinky Ellison, but then, when did the way people paired off ever make sense?
Spencer unfortunately beat Carlton to the introductions, "I'm Giacometti Veneziano."
Rolfe raised an eyebrow.
Spencer assured him, "I'm from Northern Italy. My ancestors were light-haired, pillaging Visigoths. And this is my life partner, the other half of my soul, the Sonny to my Cher, my snookie puss, Helmerschmidt Von Trapp." He lowered his voice confidentially. "A distant relative of those Von Trapps, but he doesn't like to brag."
Rolfe narrowed his eyes at Carlton. "You mentioned him on the phone." He leaned in to Spencer, lowering his voice, although not nearly enough for Carlton's comfort. "He has 'cheating with a Samoan mud wrestler' written all over him."
Spencer nodded sadly, at least until Rolfe looked away, and then he broke into a told-you-so grin.
"Well, we'll see what we can do to help Helmerschmidt get back to a place of trust and fidelity," Rolfe said briskly. "The cost for the session today is fifty dollars per couple."
"Can you get this, snookie puss?" Spencer made a kissy face and sauntered on into the living room, leaving Carlton alone with Rolfe, who had not stopped glowering at him.
Carlton pulled out his wallet with a barely suppressed sigh. "I'll need a receipt."
Rolfe pressed his mouth into a tight, disapproving line, grabbed a notepad from a nearby table and scrawled: Saving the relationship you clearly don't deserve, priceless. He flung the paper at Carlton. "Is rolling around in the mud with your little fling really worth all the pain you're causing him?" He turned huffily on his heel and went to join the rest of his guests.
Carlton looked to the ceiling, as if he might find answers there, an utterly futile gesture. He was pretty sure figuring out how to keep a leash on Spencer was one mystery he was never going to solve.
In the living room, there were two long tables set against the wall, displaying merchandise for sale, and a circle of chairs pulled together in the middle of the room that was triggering Carlton's usual fight-or-flight response to therapy. Spencer lingered at the toy table, shooting Carlton suggestive looks as he perused an enormous purple dildo.
The others had already taken seats. There were three couples. The first wore business suits and matching wedding rings, and one partner kept whispering to the other, "It'll be good for our relationship, you'll see." Despite the reassurances, the other man kept his head down, eyes on the floor, as if wishing he were anywhere else.
The next couple was all over each other, hands down the front of one another's Levi's, a match made in exhibitionist heaven. Carlton felt certain there was a citation or two for lewd conduct somewhere in their past.
The last had clearly been fighting on the car ride over. Sadly, Carlton knew the signs from far too much personal experience. By the looks of things, these two weren't going to last until the session was over. One guy kept checking his watch, while his boyfriend hissed at him furiously, "What? Are you late to meet your wife or something? You're supposed to be separated!"
Rolfe went to stand at the front of the room, hands pressed together, his expression fulsomely earnest. "I want to thank you all for coming today. Every one of us has the capacity to create a more satisfying relationship with our partner, and that's why we're here. Erotic enhancement is just a start. Our real goal is to see how we can be more in tune with our loved one and deepen the trust between us."
Carlton glanced dubiously at the item nearest him on the table, an electro prostrate stimulator. He could do without that kind of trust, thank you very much.
"So, if we can have everyone join the circle—" Rolfe paused while Carlton and Spencer took seats. "Let's begin. Any questions? Anything you'd like to share? Maybe why you wanted to be here today?"
"I can start, if that's okay?" Spencer said, a little tremulously, doing his best impersonation of an Oprah guest. "I guess you could say I came here looking for the magic. Because that's what we used to have, my snookie puss and me. Now the boom-boom is more like boom, or boo, or sometimes even just buh."
The horny couple gave Carlton pitying looks.
The shy business-suit guy said to his partner, "You keep saying you don't have any complaints in the bedroom. So I really don't understand why you insisted on coming here."
The one with the married boyfriend rolled his eyes. "Well, I better not hear any bitching, or you can go back to your wife and let her suck your dick."
Rolfe patted Spencer's shoulder sympathetically. "You can't blame yourself. Some people just don't appreciate what they have. They can't be satisfied unless they're spreading it all over town." He directed a death glare at Carlton.
Spencer nodded. "You know, Rolfe, I can't help sensing you might have some personal experience of your own on the subject." He lowered his voice confidentially. "I'm very perceptive. It comes from wearing lots of pastels. Don't you want to share with the group?"
"It really wouldn't be professional," Rolfe said, clearly tempted. "This isn't supposed to be about me."
"Oh, don't be silly!" Spencer looked to the rest of the group for support. "We want to hear all about Rolfe's soul-sucking misery and bitterness, don't we?"
There was enthusiastic agreement, and the married guy muttered, "If I have to suffer through this, he should, too."
"Well, his name was Pinky," Rolfe started haltingly, but quickly built steam as he described how they met in the window treatments aisle at the Target in the next town over, "Everyday design was his dream. He used to get this look in his eye when he'd talk about how no one should be locked out of looking good or having a beautifully decorated home."
Spencer reached for his hand. "We're all here for you."
Rolfe nodded. "So, I thought everything was perfect, just him and me forever, and then I found out he was showing his sketches for a low-price line of nipple rings to men all over town." He shook his head sadly. "Just yesterday, I was out getting a latte, and I thought I saw him. Even though he's lived in Santa Barbara for years. How pathetic is that? I never should have trusted a man who gets his head waxed. Oh, he said it was just a habit from working at the salon. But I really should have known better."
Carlton and Spencer exchanged looks.
"You don't happen to remember which salon?" Spencer asked, sliding his arm around Carlton's shoulders. "My snookie puss has a woolly mammoth somewhere in his family tree. He could use a good dipping."
The other encounter groupers gave Carlton the speculative once-over.
Rolfe just looked confused. "Deltzy's Glamorama, over on Queensberry."
Carlton grabbed Spencer by the elbow, smiling tightly. "Thank you for your time."
"But what about the rest of the session?" Rolfe frowned.
"I hope I never see another Samoan mud wrestler in my life," Carlton said dryly. "Your work here is done."
Detzy's Glamorama was trying very hard to earn its name, in somewhat retro fashion. The waiting area had the feel of a lady's boudoir from a 1940s movie, fluffy white furniture and an actual fainting couch. The woman behind the reception desk looked like Marilyn reborn, soft blonde curls and an even softer pink sweater that seemed to whisper: "Welcome."
Carlton leaned against the desk, all casual swagger. "Good afternoon, miss."
Modern-day Marilyn smiled, showing off dimples. "Welcome to Detzy's. How can we help you become more glamorous today?"
He reached for his badge. "Actually, I'm from—"
"He's from the old school when it comes to manscaping." Spencer plastered himself to Carlton's side. "But I'm trying to change his mind." He lowered his voice. "We're talking some serious follicular overgrowth here." He ran a hand proprietarily up Carlton's chest.
"We don't need to pretend to be a couple anymore," Carlton hissed under his breath.
"But we're getting so good at it," Spencer insisted.
"We have couple's sessions available." Marilyn gave Carlton a reassuring smile. "If that would help make it less intimidating."
Carlton said, "No!"
At the same time, Spencer said, "Perfect! Just the thing to get my snookie puss over his virginal jitters."
Marilyn smiled, a little uncertainly. "Third room down the hall on the right. Your waxing artist will be right with you."
"Thanks!" Spencer said brightly.
He reached for Carlton's hand. Carlton batted him away, scowling.
Spencer put on a hurt expression. "Remember what Dr. Siegel said about rejecting displays of affection?" He stage whispered to Marilyn, "Couples counseling."
She nodded sympathetically. "I wish my boyfriend would go."
Carlton forced a smile. "Thanks for your help."
He took Spencer by the elbow, fingers digging in, and hustled him down the hall.
"You really get off on the manhandling, don't you, Lassie?"
Carlton pushed him into the room and slammed the door. "We are not getting anything waxed."
"Duh!" Spencer said impatiently. "Having my body hair pulled out by the roots is not my idea of a good time. Even when it involves being covered in honey and rolling around with scantily clad centerfold triplets." He held up a hand. "Okay. So maybe then. But not—"
"We needed an in," Spencer got to the point. "Now we can look around."
He reached for the doorknob, and Carlton caught his wrist. "There are procedures to follow. You can't just—"
"Yes, I can. But if you want to waste time going through your flat foot routine with Norma Jean out there—"
The door swung open, and they jumped back out of the way.
Pinky Ellison himself, all six feet, four inches, two hundred and fifty pounds of him, came strolling into the room. "Are we ready to get started—" He stopped in his tracks, eyes going big and round as he stared at Carlton. "Oh, shit!" He flung down the bowl of melted wax and legged it down the hall.
Carlton pulled his gun and gave chase. "Police! Freeze!"
Spencer was right on his heels, out the front door and down the sidewalk.
Carlton yelled at him, "Wait in the car!"
Pinky raced past a small square with a fountain, crossed several lawns, jumping hedges, and then turned down another block, starting to put some real distance between them. Carlton's breathing rattled harshly in his ears, and his lungs burned. If he lost this idiot in a foot race, he was never going to live it down.
But then, luck seemed to be on his side for once. Pinky howled out and stumbled to a stop, grabbing at his leg, as if he'd popped a hamstring.
Carlton pulled up, huffing heavily. "Give it up, Ellison. Time to go back to Santa Barbara."
"Oh, yeah?" Pinky pulled a knife, more of a meat cleaver really, from the waistband of his pants. "Make me."
Spencer, who had not gone to the car as he'd been told, took a step toward him. "Pinky, Pinky, Pinky, we both know you're more of a lover than a fighter."
"Spencer!" Carlton hissed furiously. "He's got a knife."
Pinky brandished it wildly, as if to emphasize the point.
Spencer, as usual, displayed not even the least shred of common sense and took yet another step closer. "Come on, man. Santa Barbara's not so bad."
"I'll cut you, I swear," Pinky threatened.
Carlton clenched his jaw. "Put the weapon down now, Ellison."
Spencer held up his hands, palms out. "I'm not even a cop. I'm a psychic."
Pinky's expression turned a shade more desperate. "Now there's a freakin' fortuneteller after me?"
"All this love 'em and leave 'em stuff? The spirits are most disturbed, my two-timing friend."
Pinky dropped his guard. "Really?"
Carlton lunged, grabbing the knife out of his hand. "No, not really." He pulled out his handcuffs. "I'm taking you into custody. You'll be our guest in lock up until after you've testified."
He'd just managed to get one bracelet around Pinky's wrists when a car screeched up, an old model Camaro, and two thugs poured out, guns raised.
"Get down!" Carlton screamed, knocking Pinky to the ground.
Spencer did a spastic chicken dance, turning one way and then the other, arms covering his head, for all the good it did him out there in the open.
Carlton laid down covering fire, scrambled over to Spencer, and pushed him behind a parked car. One gunman went down, grabbing at this thigh, screeching, "You shot me! Fuck! You really shot me!" The other jumped back into the Camaro, and the car raced away with a melodramatic squeal of tires. Pinky hotfooted it down the block, not letting his tweaked hamstring slow him down in the least.
A line of sweat beaded on Spencer's forehead, his pallor pasty despite the tan, eyes wide, all whites. Of course, now that he was perfectly safe, he had the good grace to look scared. Carlton's hand twitched, the urge for violence, that satisfying impact of fist to face, so sharp and sudden he could taste it.
Instead, he pointed a finger at the curb. "Sit there. Don't move a muscle. Don't even breathe." And then he went off to play the good cop, securing the downed suspect, calling for an ambulance and the local police.
Radio cars rolled up, and he gave a statement to the officers, enduring their digs disguised as commiseration, "Too bad your guy got away from you. I thought you city cops were too smooth for that."
Spencer stayed on the curb, miracle of miracles, fidgeting the whole time, clearly anxious to get back to the manhunt. When Carlton finished up at last, Spencer bounded to his feet. "Have fun with your cop buddies?" He sounded as glib as someone who hadn't just had bullets whizzing past his head.
That was it, the proverbial straw, and Carlton fisted his hand in Spencer's collar, slammed him up against the driver's side door. "Didn't I tell you to get in the car back there?"
For just a second, surprise flared in Spencer's eyes, but it was quickly chased away by the predictable smirk. "The rule was: when you tell me to stay in the car—"
Carlton twisted the collar of Spencer's shirt, so tightly his knuckles pressed into Spencer's throat. "Bleeding out on a patch of dirty pavement isn't a joke."
This time, the look of surprise wasn't so fleeting, and Carlton found enough satisfaction in that to let Spencer go.
"Get in the car," he said tersely.
For once, Spencer did as he was told.
They drove around town for hours, hitting every nail hut, hair salon, tanning bed and discount clothing barn, but no sign of Pinky Ellison anywhere. With cops and hoodlums both on his trail, he was probably halfway to Tijuana by now. Carlton swiped a hand through his hair. The picture of Spencer frozen in the line of fire kept swimming behind his eyes. All the many ways that Spencer annoyed him tended to make him lose sight of the most important reason why Spencer shouldn't be involved in police business: the simple fact that civilians had no place dying in the line of duty.
"You know, Lassie," Spencer was the picture of nonchalance sprawled in the passenger seat, "as fascinating as it is getting the grand tour of all the personal maintenance landmarks in Freedom, don't you think it's time we called it a night? Not that I'm against aimless wandering. It's good for the chi. Fergus would approve."
Carlton set his jaw. "Fine." He turned the wheel hard, Spencer bouncing off the passenger side door, as they pulled into a Days Inn.
Spencer sighed dramatically. "Would it kill you, just once a Ritz Carlton?"
"Yes." Carlton slammed the car door. "It would."
"Well, do you think we can at least order a pizza?" Spencer followed him into the office.
Carlton paid for the room. "No."
"This taciturn thing looks good on you, Lassie. Very Jean Claude Van Damme, minus the muscles."
Carlton ignored him, trudging into the room, sitting down heavily on the end of the bed to untie his shoes. He felt more than tired; he felt old. He'd enjoy putting the blame for that squarely on Spencer, like cigarettes, taking years off his life, but he couldn't kid himself.
Spencer, meanwhile, bounced around the room like the overgrown, hyperactive four-year-old he was. "I've never understood why every surface in a cheap motel has to be covered by formica. Where is that written?" He stopped abruptly, pulling at his sleeve. "Aw, come on. Not my Nobody Knows I'm Elvis. Dude, it's my favorite."
There was a bullet hole, round and singed at the edges.
"Can you believe this?" Spencer glanced up and caught Carlton staring, before he could paste on the appropriate scowl. Spencer's mouth crooked up at the corner, "Lassie! You were worried about me."
Carlton crossed his arms over his chest. "Worried you were going to get in the way of apprehending the suspect. Which, as I recall, is exactly what you did."
"Come on. Admit it. You were one concerned snookie puss." Spencer had the temerity to smirk.
That aggressive impulse from earlier in the day had never really gone away. It was just simmering beneath the surface, and now it boiled over. Carlton's hand shot out, gripping Spencer's wrist so hard he could feel the grind of bone, and the thing was: this could go so many ways. His mouth forced insistently against Spencer's was perhaps not the most obvious choice, but then, things so often weren't obvious. Distantly he wondered what he was trying to prove, that glibness had its consequences maybe, or what a wrongheaded jackass Spencer had been expecting Carlton to break into a homophobic sweat over some hand holding and a ridiculous nickname, or maybe he just wanted to shut Spencer up for once.
It wasn't such a surprise that Spencer grabbed back, kissed back, mouth opening at the first touch of Carlton's tongue against his lip. This was Spencer, whose personality could be best summed up as one big game of chicken. But then Carlton shifted, his body surging forward, and suddenly there was hot hardness pressing against his thigh. Now, that, that was startling.
"What can I say? Manly competence with firearms is one of my turn ons." Spencer leaned closer, rasp of stubbled cheek against Carlton's ear, voice softer than Carlton would have expected it could be. "I've been hard since you pushed me behind that car."
Carlton pulled back to look at him, eyes narrowed. Spencer's mouth was tilted at the usual ironic angle, and it was impossible to guess if he was just making fun. Carlton almost hoped so, because then the joke was about to be on him.
Carlton reached out blindly, hand scrabbling on the nearby dresser for the little bottle of complimentary lotion. He pushed Spencer—half threw him really—onto the bed.
"Yeah, Lassie. Come on. Show me what you're made of," Spencer said, taunt or encouragement, it didn't matter.
This was Carlton's show now.
He lay heavily on top of Spencer, Spencer's arms trapped between their bodies, his jaw clenched tightly in Carlton's hand, holding him still, making him take it, kiss after brutal, desperate, furious, hungry kiss.
When he pulled back, it was to pop the button of Spencer's jeans, push down the zipper. Spencer's chest rose and fell like he was running a race, or running for his life, eyes wide and a little glassy, all pupil. Carlton reached into his underwear and squeezed his dick. Spencer sucked in his breath so hard it sounded like he was choking, his eyelids fluttering. "Shit!"
Carlton thumbed the crown, spreading the moisture along the shaft, tracing the vein on the underside, making Spencer shake with every flicker of his fingers. This was what he wanted, Carlton realized somewhat belatedly, this little bit of mastery, making Spencer buck up and bite his lip and clench his hands into fists.
Not that Spencer was going down without a fight, naturally. He tussled with the fly on Carlton's slacks, managed to get them open at last and shoved down to Carlton's knees. He reached for Carlton's dick, and it was just the same way he did everything else, reckless and too much and greedy as all hell.
"God," Carlton moaned.
Suddenly, he felt nothing but young.
They rutted against each other, and Carlton dispensed with Spencer's T-shirt, worried a nipple with his teeth just to hear Spencer complain, not at all convincingly, "You play too rough, Lassie!"
Spencer's own efforts to get Carlton naked were meeting with less success, hands tangled up in Carlton's jacket, fingers sliding uselessly on his button up shirt. "This is why it's bad to be stuffy."
Carlton did his own undressing, then stripped Spencer's jeans and underwear down his legs.
"Wait!" Spencer called out. "In my pocket."
Carlton felt around, pulled out a condom, raised an eyebrow.
Spencer shrugged, his expression utterly shameless. "People often find me irresistible."
Asking for it, and Carlton flipped Spencer over onto his stomach, stretched along his back, his cock sliding into the cleft of Spencer's ass, as if it belonged there. He held Spencer's wrists and found the spot where neck met shoulder, sucking, lingering until he'd left a mark, satisfyingly dark.
"Before you go getting smug on me, Lassie," Spencer's voice was muffled by the pillow, "keep in mind that it's only because I'm letting you."
Carlton took Spencer's hands, pushed them up against the headboard, closed his fingers around the wood spindles. "Good enough."
The lotion dribbled through his fingers, blaringly rose scented. They were both going to smell like flowers for days. He nudged one of Spencer's legs up under him and pushed fingers hastily into his ass, all tight, smooth heat. Spencer cursed, loudly and colorfully. Maybe it hurt, but that didn't stop him from surging back, taking more. Always the daredevil. Always trying to change the rules.
Carlton crooked his finger, stroking softly, exploring, and when Spencer seized and shook like volts were flowing through him, that was it, the place to touch and touch and touch so very, maddeningly lightly. Spencer thrashed and demanded more and whined when he didn't get it, because sometimes youth was no match for experience, and at last he gritted out between his teeth, "Just do it already, Lassie. Fuck me."
Carlton's hands shook as he rolled on the condom, not that he was nervous, a ridiculous notion. He pushed inside, and his eyes flew shut. God, that was good. It had been way too long since he'd touched someone. Spencer's shoulders tensed, and he gripped the pillow, so hard his knuckles turned white. There wasn't a peep out of him. Carlton had been waiting for this, so long, some little chink in all that brashness.
He kissed Spencer's neck, the same place he'd savaged before, but tenderly this time. He stroked a hand down Spencer's side, started to move, slowly, carefully. Spencer's reaction when he found the right angle was just as loud and overly dramatic as everything else about him. Carlton reached around, palmed Spencer's erection, which got even harder in his hand.
"Yeah, yeah, give it to me, Lassie," Spencer slurred the words.
And Carlton did, everything he had, cock and fist and his mouth wetly against Spencer's shoulder. Spencer's body squeezed around him, and only pride kept him from coming. Just this one victory for experience, he cajoled his body, hold on, hold on, and then Spencer was coming apart in his hands, sweating and trembling and shooting over his fist. Carlton leaned all the way forward, chest pressed tightly to Spencer's back. He bit that same spot again, hard, right as he came, because victories were supposed to be marked.
Afterwards, Spencer sprawled on the sheets, taking up more than his fair share of the room, and without any warning, let out a bellowing "woooo!" as if he were at a monster truck rally. Carlton considered pointing out that there were two beds, but then, Spencer turned his head on the pillow. His smile, for once, was simply satisfied. "I wouldn't have guessed you had it in you, Lassie."
Carlton pretended to scowl. "Go to sleep, Spencer."
Morning hit the way mornings often did, jarring and way too early, and in this case, with Spencer half draped over him, drooling on his shoulder. Carlton extricated himself, and went to throw cold water on his face. He didn't look any less bleary eyed afterwards, and even a shower didn't help that much. It was just because he was there, and he nearly got himself killed, and I had to shut him up, Carlton thought at his reflection in the mirror as he shaved. He did his best to ignore the nagging part of him that kept insisting, Okay, maybe that would explain fucking him once, but what about the other two times?
He dressed, feeling somewhat more pasted together once he was wearing a coat and tie. Spencer snored on, and Carlton shook his shoulder roughly. "Get up, Spencer. Time to get to work."
"Five more minutes, Mom," he mumbled, voice sleep rough.
Carlton sighed. "You can get up, or I can dump you on the floor."
Spencer made a loud, protesting noise, but did push himself up on one elbow, blinking groggily. "Orgasms are supposed to make you cheerful, Lassie."
Carlton pointed his finger at the bathroom.
Spencer huffed, "Oh, all right." He heaved himself out of bed. "You know, it is 2007. Everyone's having gay sex with their co-workers. No need to get your boxers in a bunch."
He padded off to the bathroom.
Carlton let out a breath and took out his phone to check in with the Chief. He told her about the near miss, minimizing the part where the civilian consultant almost got shot. Waiver or no waiver, that would certainly make her yell.
"The more I think about it, the more I think we should stay put," he told her. "I mean, the smart thing for Pinky Ellison to do would be to get out of town, but he's not exactly a Mensa member, and he is a creature of habit. He likes places he knows. He's going to lay low, wait for us to leave."
"Maybe, or maybe he's already in Mexico," the Chief said. "We can't afford to take the chance. Come back to Santa Barbara. We'll regroup, and go from there."
Carlton hung up, none too happy, and started packing up his bag. Spencer came straggling out of the bathroom, pulling on a T-shirt.
"Lassie, what'cha doing? We can't leave now. Did you even bother to read Pinky Ellison's file? He's spent his whole life either here or in Santa Barbara. He's not going to suddenly move to Omaha and change his name to Roy."
"The Chief wants us to back," he said, each word clipped.
"You want to take the bus?"
Spencer threw up his hands. "Fine. Don't catch the criminal."
He insisted on going through the drive-through at the McDonald's on the way out of town. "We skipped dinner and a movie. The least you can do is buy me breakfast."
Carlton got a black coffee, Spencer enough junk food for three people. They turned onto the highway, and Carlton kept his eyes straight ahead, focused on the traffic.
"Are you going to be like this the whole way back to Santa Barbara?" Spencer asked, between bites of his Egg McMuffin. "Look, Lassie. What happens in Freedom stays in Freedom, okay? So just relax."
Carlton chanced a glance over at him, and Spencer seemed sincere. Well, as close as he got to it, anyway. Carlton felt some of the tension in his shoulders ease.
Spencer grinned. "You were afraid I was going to start calling you Carlton, weren't you?"
Up ahead a billboard sported a familiar red bulls-eye. Carlton blinked, and then looked at Spencer, who shrugged. "Everyday design is his dream."
Carlton swerved across three lanes of traffic to get to the exit.
Pinky was standing in the middle of the home lighting aisle, admiring a display of table lamps, Carlton's handcuffs still dangling from one wrist. "They get their new shipments in on Thursdays," he said, as if he'd been waiting for them to show up. "Look at that. A thing of beauty for only $39.99. It's freakin' amazing, man."
Spencer put a hand on his shoulder. "You really do need to come back to Santa Barbara, Pinky. The Target is much larger there."
Pinky made an oh-please face. "The nearest one is in Ventura."
"But it is larger, isn't it?" Spencer coaxed.
Pinky sighed. "You cops gonna keep me from getting a bullet to the head?"
"We will," Carlton promised.
"I guess I can come with you then." He held out his wrists.
Carlton fastened the other bracelet and walked him out to the car.
The first hour or so of the trip went by smoothly enough, except for the metal music blaring from the radio at Spencer's insistence, and then a decided stink started to waft over from the back seat. Carlton rolled down the window, but the closer they got to Santa Barbara, the ranker things got.
Finally, Spencer whirled around. "Are you trying to gas us to death?"
Pinky threw up his hands, as much as he could with the handcuffs. "When I get nervous, my irritable bowl acts up." His stomach made a disturbing noise, and he doubled over. "Oh, God. Bathroom!"
"If this is some kind of trick—" Carlton threatened.
"Now!" Pinky moaned.
Carlton took the next exit, and they screeched to a stop in the parking lot of an Amoco. Pinky did what Carlton's sister referred to in her four year old as "the peepee, poopoo dance" while Carlton unlocked the handcuffs. He made a mad dash for the nearest stall.
"This could take a while," Pinky warned them.
Carlton leaned back against the wall and waited. Spencer's patience lasted all of about five seconds, and then he started fidgeting and rocking on his heels and sighing loudly.
"Yeah," he said at last. "I'm going to need to do something to pass the time."
Spencer dropped to his knees and opened Carlton's pants, took out his cock before Carlton had so much as a chance to blink. He bent his head, and Carlton was scrabbling at the cinderblock wall.
It took some long moments of heat and tongue and Spencer's hand wrapped around his cock before Carlton's brain kicked back in and he hissed, "We can't do this, not—"
"If I can be down here in the sticky I don't even want to think about what's on this floor, you can stand there and take it like a man," Spencer hissed back.
He returned to his devious efforts to make Carlton cry like a little girl, and Pinky called out, "Is something going on out there? I heard whispering."
"Yeah, we were just trying to figure out if you'd fallen in," Carlton snapped, his voice not squeaking, not even a little bit, an achievement with Spencer tonguing that place on the underside of his cock.
He slid his fingers into Spencer's hair, urging him on. One thing he'd never wondered about in his life: can Shawn Spencer deep throat? But, hey, now he knew.
A rustling noise from inside the stall, and Carlton pulled at Spencer's shoulders. "Come on!"
"I'm doing my best!" Pinky insisted.
Spencer grinned, and did something tricky and smug with his tongue, and Carlton was pulling at him and pushing and coming until he was light-headed. The toilet flushed, and Carlton scrambled to pull his pants back up, batting away Spencer, whose attempts to help did nothing but slow down progress.
Pinky came out at last, casting suspicious looks. "I know what's going on."
Carlton was ready with denials, ready to strangle Spencer if he started to run off at the mouth.
Pinky pointed a finger. "You think if you don't feed me we won't have to make any more bathroom stops on the way back to Santa Barbara. Well, forget it. I've got a meal coming, and I want chicken fingers."
Carlton rolled his eyes as he snapped the cuffs back into place. "Get in the car."
The Chief looked considerably more like herself when Carlton came to report that Pinky Ellison had been squared away, in protective custody until after the trial. The scary glint was gone from her eyes. Not a spot of baby throw up was anywhere to be seen.
"Your nephew back from Big Bear?" he asked.
She tilted her head. "How did you know?"
"So, you found Pinky at the local Target." She shook her head. "I guess he really is—"
"Creature of habit," Carlton chimed in.
"Well, good work, detective. Where's Mr. Spencer? I didn't get a chance to thank him for his help."
Carlton shrugged. "He said something about a psychic emergency."
"You two made a pretty good team," the Chief observed.
Carlton stared at her. "Tell me you're kidding."
She smiled. "Have a good weekend, detective."
The apartment was quiet when Carlton got home. Just the way he liked it, he reminded himself. He got a beer out of the refrigerator, leaned against the counter while he drank it, considering his options for the evening. He had the latest 50 States coin—Utah, admitted 45th to the union—to put in his collector's map. Or there was a Laker's game on tonight. He drifted over to the television, but didn't turn it on.
Oh, please, he told himself, you did not get used to having Spencer around in the span of two days.
The phone rang, and Carlton fished it out of his jacket pocket, raised an eyebrow when he saw the number. "This better not be about your psychic emergency."
"Lassie, keep up. That was hours ago," Spencer said breezily. "This is about Blade Runner and pizza."
"Oh, come on. Utah will still be there tomorrow. Also, I'm already here."
Carlton sighed and went to open the door.
Spencer stood on the welcome mat, phone to his ear. "Hi."
He pushed past Carlton, barging on in to the apartment. "Relax, Lassie." He grinned. "What happens in your apartment stays in your apartment."