"Hey! What do you think you're doing?"
Thornton raced through the low staff gate and made a grab for the kid snatching drugs off the pharmacy shelves only to be shoved backwards. The kid made a run for the door and Thornton knew he would never be able to catch him. He cursed under his breath, feeling his whole body shaking from the adrenaline rush only now realizing his own foolishness. He was an idiot. He should never have made a grab for the kid. Better for the drug-crazed kid to snatch a handful of pill bottles than for him to end up with a knife in his belly.
Someone must have seen something because the police arrived soon after. Thornton sat down on one of the seats provided for customers waiting for a prescription as Officer Franks took his statement.
"Have you seen him hanging around before today?"
Thornton shook his head but, in truth, he was not the most observant of people at the best of times.
"What was he wearing?" The officer waited patiently for a response.
"Uh. A black hoodie...jeans."
"Was he armed? Did you see a knife or a gun?"
"No. No weapons."
The officer nodded and Thornton could read the expression in his eyes that told him he had been lucky, that things might have gone down a whole lot worse if the kid had been armed.
"You said he shoved you backwards. So he was pretty strong? Bigger? Taller?"
"Well... He was taller by a few inches but..." Thornton frowned. "He shoved me away like a quarterback pushing through..." Thornton sighed heavily. "I'm not making a lot of sense here, am I?"
"A lot of kids play football in this town." He flicked a glance over his shoulder. "I noticed the Lancers pendant displayed in your window."
Thornton glanced that way. Football was the only thing he and Matt Kimball, the co-owner of the pharmacy, could agree on wholeheartedly. Both of them liked to watch the game, and both of them happily sponsored the Lancers, providing the contents of the team's medical kit.
The door shoved open and the officer's partner popped his head around. "Franks! We got a code 3. Officer down."
Franks snapped closed his notebook. "Sorry, sir. We'll take the rest of your statement down at the station later."
Thornton both saw and heard the police car pull away with lights flashing and siren wailing. He slumped into the seat for a moment before glancing around the empty store. His eyes flicked back to the security camera mounted high on the wall. Moments later he had locked up the store and was playing back the security footage, watching as he was shoved aside and freezing frame on a perfect capture of the kid's face. He knew that kid, and the niggling feeling that had assailed him from the moment he was shoved aside earlier came back full force. Football.
"Oh crap," he murmured as he finally realized where he had seen that face before. "Jake Harrow."
He took a copy of the footage from the security system. Then, with shaking hands, he called Bill Marsh.
"Bill? This is Thornton Eagan...Kimball Pharmacy? I have something you need to see. One of your players just robbed my store."
When Overton approached him and suggested he delete the original footage off the security tape and change his statement to throw away any suspicion that might land on the university--and the Lancers in particular--Thornton had accepted the bribery of good seats for all of their future games. After all, Jake Harrow wasn't a bad kid. It was just a stupid hazing that had backfired. The guilt had come later when the Police hauled some innocent, homeless guy off the street and fitted him for the crime even though Thornton had stuck to his original statement of having never seen the guy's face. It had made no difference though as the prosecution had found other evidence and another witness to place Travis Guthrie at the scene. Guthrie already had two previous convictions so when he was found guilty, he was convicted to life imprisonment according to the Three Strikes law.
An old saying sprung to mind: When you lay down with dogs, expect to get fleas.
He had accepted the bribe. He had changed his statement to cast doubt on someone other than Jake Harrow. When he told Overton that he was having second thoughts after seeing the court hand down such a heavy sentence on Guthrie, Overton made it abundantly clear that if he said anything then Guthrie would not be the only one serving time in prison. Thornton would lose his license to practise, and everything he had worked so hard for in his life would be lost.
He had almost managed to convince himself that he had done the city a favor by getting that homeless guy off the street before he did commit a more heinous crime, but at the back of his mind, the injustice took its toll. It haunted him whenever he saw a news report on corruption or false imprisonment. It played on his mind, bringing him nightmares where he was in Guthrie's shoes, dragged away to serve a life sentence for a crime he had not committed. Yet it was nothing to the fear that filled him now as he faced two fresh-faced university kids across his pharmacy counter; two kids full of ideology and on a cruise for justice.
These kids were digging up the dirt and had proved that they already knew too much about the case. They asked him about the earlier statement taken by Officer Franks, and Thornton knew it might only be a matter of time before they figured out the rest.
As soon as they left his store, Thornton called Overton in a panic. "We need to talk."
When he locked up the store later that evening, Bobby Overton was waiting for him outside. Thornton climbed into the passenger side and they drove off along the darkened streets. It was only when they moved into an unfamiliar part of the city that Thornton felt the first stirrings of fear. The gap between the houses began to grow wider as the minutes passed, taking them further and further away from Memphis.
"Where are we going?"
"Just a little further."
It wasn't really an answer to his question but Overton pulled over ten minutes later, before Thornton could ask again. A glance around revealed no sign of any houses, just a darkness that sent shivers up and down his spine. Headlights in the distance grew closer, illuminating the inside of Overton's car. The other car came to a stop behind them and Thornton heard a car door slam. Overton stepped out too and after a moment's hesitation, so did Thornton. It took a moment to realize that the man walking towards them was Bill Marsh.
Overton greeted him. "Looks like we have a problem with some wannabe lawyers from the university." Overton looked to Thornton and he explained what had happened in the store earlier.
Marsh shook his head. "They're just fishing...but you're taking the bait, Bobby. Now I paid you a lot of money and favors to make this go away. Make it happen. Because if one of us goes down, we all go down." He stared hard at Thornton. "You get it?"
Thornton nodded and looked away, wishing he had kept his mouth shut that night. If he had said nothing to Bill Marsh on the night of the robbery then he would not have had to self-medicate for so many sleepless nights since that day, or take anxiety medication whenever something reminded him of that night and the trial that followed. He wanted this over with, but the thought of losing everything was too high a price to pay.
Marsh continued, and Thornton shrunk back a little as Marsh moved into his personal space. "Now, I suggest you go back to your store and keep your mouth shut."
Marsh stormed back to his car and drove off and it wasn't until he heard the engine start up that he realized Overton was also leaving, but without him. Overton rolled down the window and smiled nastily.
"A little walk should help clear your head."
But Overton drove off, leaving him alone in the middle of nowhere, in the dark. He pushed his hands through his hair and rubbed his face before pulling back his shoulders and setting off back the way they had come. He had a little cash on him so if he could make it to the nearest public phone booth, he could call a cab. It would likely cost him a small fortune but Thornton couldn't see that he had a lot of choice.
The unlit road was creepy and dark, with only starlight to guide his footsteps. He stumbled down a couple of shallow potholes before realizing that he had to avoid the darker patches on the road. The land either side of the country road was lost in the darkness but he could hear strange noises; his overactive imagination kicked in and he began to walk a little faster, becoming more creeped out when the road passed through a lightly wooded area. Flickers of light filtering through the trees made his heart stutter until he realized it was the headlights of a distant car heading in the general direction of Memphis. He debated internally for a few moments before deciding to take a risk, turning to face the car and waving it down. When it slowed down and stopped, Thornton was sure if he ought to be relieved or scared. The driver's window rolled down and he caught only a shadow of the man's face.
"You need a lift?"
With some trepidation, Thornton climbed into the passenger seat and took a look at the driver. The guy smiled and pulled away. Thornton had never been one for small talk but the silence hung heavy in the air.
"So. You always pick up strangers in the middle of nowhere?"
The guy's smile widened and he flicked a glance towards Thornton. "You always hitch rides with strangers in the middle of nowhere...in the dark?"
"Um. No. I...had a disagreement with a...a friend and he...left me behind."
"Friend?" The smile tightened. "Not much of a friend really."
"No. I guess not."
"Where are you headed?"
"Home. Uh. Memphis. You?"
"Yeah. I have a job waiting for me there but I don't start for a few weeks so I thought, why not drive there? See the country."
Thornton shook his head and they drove on in silence for a few minutes--enough time for the events surrounding his abandonment tonight to catch up with him again. The guy spoke up, breaking the silence as the first houses began to appear.
"So what was the argument about?" He glanced across at Thornton before turning back to watch the road ahead. "Must have been something important for him to want to teach you a lesson...or give you plenty of time to think it through."
Thornton grimaced. "It's...complicated. I made a mistake and I don't know how to fix it. Not without...consequences." Thornton blinked, shocked by his openness with a complete stranger, but the guy had a voice and manner that seemed to encourage him to speak the truth.
It wasn't as if Thornton had lied to the authorities. The police had hauled Guthrie in off the streets and found him guilty. They had sentenced him to life imprisonment. Not him...except it had been within his power to tell them they had the wrong guy, but that would have opened the proverbial can of worms. He would have had to admit that he had withheld--destroyed--evidence in return for good seats at the Lancers home games. As Overton had reminded him so callously earlier, he had everything to lose if he opened his mouth, for a conviction would see his pharmaceutical license revoked. Without his license to dispense medicine, what could he do? It wasn't as if Matt gave a damn about him anymore; not since he hooked up with that guy from the dry cleaners down the street. In fact, Matt had been making suggestions for month's now about buying him out of the business, and the apartment above the pharmacy that he had moved into after they broke up.
The guy spoke again. "If you're waiting for me to tell you everything is going to be okay then I can't do that." He caught the guy's eyes as he glanced across again. "Not without knowing how much trouble you're in."
Thornton sighed. "I...lied to give a kid a second chance, and it backfired. Someone else got blamed."
"Okay." He stretched out the word. "And I guess owning up to it would have these...consequences."
"I shouldn't have said anything."
"My name. Tom Arquette."
"Oh. Thornton Eagan."
"So where do you need me to drop you off?"
Thornton glanced to the window, shocked to see the more familiar streets of Memphis. He was only a few blocks from the Pharmacy now and quickly gave directions. Tom pulled over to the curb and let the engine idle as Thornton stared out the passenger window at the small business that had become a big part of this life in recent years.
"So. Where are you planning on staying?"
"I've not decided yet. I'll look for a cheap--"
"You can stay here." Once more Thornton was surprised by his own words but realized he simply didn't want Tom to go. Once he drove away, Thornton was certain he would never see him again. "I have a couch that folds out."
"Well, I'd hate to impose."
"It's the least I can do as a thank you for the ride home."
Thornton held his breath as he waited, seeing the indecision in Tom's eyes that slowly cleared; Tom nodded with a soft smile.
"Well...don't thank me yet. You haven't tried sleeping on that couch."
Thornton fussed about the kitchen while Tom took his measure of the small apartment. He felt a little apprehensive and embarrassed but Tom smiled and accepted the decaffeinated coffee.
"It's a little too late for caffeine," Thornton added by way of explanation as he sat down opposite Tom, knowing the caffeine would only make him more jittery and nervous.
He watched as Tom sipped at his coffee, drawn to the soft mouth with its ready smile, and glanced away quickly when Tom raised an eyebrow. He hadn't meant to be so obvious with his attraction to Tom but it had been so long since he allowed himself to look at another guy. Memphis wasn't exactly the most tolerant of cities, not that he'd had any real problems personally. He looked back when Tom placed his mug onto the coffee table and stood up, frozen in place when Tom took Thornton's coffee and placed it aside before drawing Thornton to his feet. The press of lips against his own left him feeling lightheaded and when he opened his eyes, unaware of having shut them, Tom's face was only inches from his.
"Maybe I don't need the couch," Tom murmured, and Thornton could think of no better way to answer than by leaning in and kissing him.
Thornton awoke to the sensation of a warm tongue gliding up the length of his already stiff cock. He gasped as the heat of Tom's mouth wrapped around the head, arching his back and thrusting up his hips as that mouth and tongue slowly unraveled him. When he knew he was close, he tugged on Tom's hair but Tom merely glanced up, eyes dancing with wicked pleasure as he took Thornton over the edge, swallowing his release. He licked his lips when he finally withdrew, crawling up the bed over Thornton and kissing him deep and hard. The taste of stale coffee, come and morning breath should have been disgusting but was strangely satisfying. Pliant from his own release, he let Tom rub off against him, loving the drag of Tom's cock over his skin until the heat of Tom's release flooded between them; Tom collapsed over him, pressing soft, sloppy kisses against Thornton's throat until Thornton turned his head and kissed him deeply.
It was only just passed seven and Thornton didn't need to open the pharmacy for another couple of hours so he wriggled until Tom was more comfortably settled against him, and let his thoughts drift away in the hazy afterglow of pleasure. When the alarm started to beep an hour later, he fumbled it off rather than hit the snooze button. Looking across he saw Tom watching him through sleepy eyes, with a satisfied smile tugging the corners of his luscious mouth. For the first time ever, Thornton decided to take a day off. It wasn't as if Matt bothered to show up more than a couple of times a week despite wanting to buy him out of the business, and today was one of the few days he could count on.
Thornton leaned up on one elbow. "If you don't have plans to move on right away, I could show you around Memphis."
"Sure. I'd like that."
A day turned into a week with each day passing far too quickly, reminding Thornton that his life used to be far more than just an endless parade of sick people seeking advice and prescriptions for up to fourteen hours a day. As they lay clean and sated after another pleasure-filled day spent cruising on the Mississippi--and equally pleasurable evening wrapped in each other's arms--he listened as Tom spoke of his reasons for leaving Atlanta.
"Being with Rachel was unprofessional while I was working as her brother's therapist. Oh, I justified it as two consenting adults having fun, convincing even myself that it had with nothing to do with her brother's case. And I was wrong. It was a stupid risk to take. I could have damaged my reputation irreparably, maybe even been struck off. And it wasn't as if she meant..." He looked at Thornton with an earnest expression. "Don't get me wrong. I liked her. I really did. She was smart and sassy but..." he trailed off.
"I'm bi. As if you couldn't guess," he added with a small huff of a laugh. "I like men and I like women, but when I'm with a woman, I always miss being with another guy. And usually, when I'm with a guy..."
Thornton nodded morosely, knowing where this was going. "You miss being with a woman."
"Until now." Tom leaned up over him and seemed to study his face intently. "I've never wanted to be with anyone as much as I want to be with you." He reached out and stroked a finger through Thornton's chest hairs. "It's not about this..." His hand moved across Thornton's belly and down, gliding over his softened cock. "Or this." He looked deep into Thornton's eyes and tapped him gently on the side of the head. "It's this. The person inside the...admittedly, great looking body."
Thornton looked away guiltily. "You might not feel that way when you find out what I did."
"Then tell me. Let me make up my own mind."
Thornton buried his face in shame as he related the incident with Jake Harrow and the innocent guy who was given a life sentence in his place.
"You have to come clean."
"Without the security footage I don't have any proof. Just my word against theirs."
"What about those kids who questioned you? Sounds like they want to help this Guthrie prove his innocence. Perhaps if you told them the truth then they might be able to keep on digging until they find some proof." Tom leaned in and kissed him softly. "We'll go find them tomorrow. Together."
Thornton took in a deep breath and sighed, nodding his agreement. Despite knowing how this could end for him, he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
They rocked together slowly as light filtered in at the start of a new day, followed by a leisurely shower. Over night, Thornton had thought about the future and how he simply could not see a future for him in Memphis. Tom had the right idea about leaving Atlanta. Even if Thornton didn't lose his license, he needed to get away from this city, and from Matt, and make a fresh start. When he came out the small bathroom, he found Tom seated at the small table eating toast so Thornton poured him another coffee and kissed him on the temple.
"I need to speak with Matt. I'll be back soon."
The apartment had no direct access to the pharmacy below so he made his way down the back stairs and through the front entrance. Matt was standing behind the counter in a white coat, preparing the first of the regular daily prescriptions, and he glowered at Thornton.
"You planning on coming back any time soon?"
"Actually...No. I've been thinking on what you said, and if the offer still stands, you can have my share of the business."
Matt almost dropped the beaker in shock, fumbling with it for a second. "Uh. Sure. I have the paperwork... I have it here."
Thornton wasn't all that surprised, and he read through the papers carefully before signing his name at the bottom. He looked back up into the face of his former lover and saw Matt's eyes soften for the first time in so many months.
"I'll have the money wired into your account by tomorrow," Matt stated softly.
"Can I have a few days to vacate the apartment?"
There wasn't a whole lot left to say so Thornton nodded and turned away but Matt called to him as he reached the threshold.
"Thorn? Take care of yourself."
Tom eyed him curiously when he re-entered the small kitchen area. The TV was playing in the background and Thornton frowned when he recognized the Lancers emblem. He reached over and turned up the sound, stunned as he listened to Jake Harrow admit to stealing from the pharmacy. Thornton fell back onto the couch in shock. It was over, and there was no need for anyone to open the investigation and come gunning for him.
"Isn't that the kid you were talking about?"
Thornton nodded, still too shocked to speak. Finally he found his voice. "Yes. Yes. It's over."
Tom dropped onto the couch next to him and wrapped his arms around him, hugging him tight, and Thornton found himself holding on just as hard. The words kept repeating in his head. Over. Finally over. Tom kissed him hard before pulling back.
"I've been thinking of maybe checking around the clinics in Memphis to see if they have any openings."
Thornton laughed softly. "Strange, because I've been thinking of doing the same in San Francisco...especially now I've sold my half of the pharmacy to Matt."
It was Tom's turn to look on in stunned delight. "You'll come to San Francisco with me?"
"Are you still planning on driving the rest of the way?"
"If I had certain company."
Thornton grinned. "Always wanted to see the country," he replied softly.
On the following day, they drove off together, leaving a haulage company to store Thornton's few possessions and transport it across the country in a few week's time. Time enough for Thornton and Tom to see Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, make a short detour to Las Vegas before heading onto Los Angeles, and finally San Francisco.
Time enough to discover that the largest non-profit clinic in San Francisco also had an opening for a fully qualified Pharmacist.