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The Steel-Wire Tightrope

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Henry was never late.

But: Henry was late.

Johnny smiled at the big drunk man talking at him, nodded like he was paying any kind of attention. The man thumped one meaty hand onto Johnny's shoulder and gave a filthy laugh.

Johnny could only think about a few things: one, Henry. Two, Henry should have been out of Burkhalter's office ages ago. Three, this guy was crowding him way too close, bringing fumes of expensive liquor and cigars along with more of that terrible laugh.

"So which one!" the guy bellowed right into his ear.

Johnny grinned at him, weaving a little like he was just as gone as his new pal. "Oh I dunno!" he bellowed back. "You tell me!"

"Well!" The man slipped his hand further over Johnny's shoulder, made it an arm around his neck, forcibly turned him toward the crowd of house girls standing demurely or not-so-demurely against the far wall. "You're blond...you like blondes?"

What Johnny liked was to know that Henry wasn't dead in a cellar someplace. But he said, "Sure!" and pretended to sip his drink.

His pal thumped him too hard on the back. "Spoiled for choice, then, though half of 'em dye it. Just don't move on that redhead over there, understand? She's mine."

"Uh huh," Johnny said, not really listening.

"Give me a redhead, yessir," the guy slurred. "Show me that shiny little copper penny in her drawers."

Johnny kept himself from making a face, though just barely. He watched the women whispering to each other, preparing to mingle into the drunk and sweating crowd of businessmen, and thought about Billie. She ran a good house. Not a girl there had to worry about being mishandled, or cheated out of her fair share.

It didn't seem as likely here. Despite the high-roller crowd, hard cash nearly overflowing right out of their tailored trousers, the house was shabby and the girls not so well paid. Not a solid business, but a front, and crooked as a dog's hind leg.

Course, that was why Burkhalter had seemed such a good target for the Rising Sun con. That was why Johnny had strolled into this cover without a care, as long as he could see Henry across the room working his way into Burkhalter's vest pocket.

But now Henry was late.

If it had been Johnny in that part, he admitted to himself that he might not have hit every spot in the game exactly on time. He and Henry had wrangled about that sort of thing a bit. Johnny tended to subscribe to the "better late than never" school of thought, where you got there when you got there and your crew knew how to wait. But Henry believed in rules, in timing like a Swiss clock, and never had Johnny seen him fail to tap in when he said he would.

Johnny knew he ought to fall back. He could call for help, keep his cover, and protect the con. But right now, with a big silk-shirted arm clamped around his neck and the minutes ticking by without any sign of Henry, he shocked himself by thinking, Screw the con. Henry's eyes would've frozen him in his tracks like chips of blue ice.

...of course, Henry wasn't here, now was he.

The hallway into the back rooms was blocked by a single evening-suited gorilla, leaning surly and bored against the wall. Given how roughly he'd treated the occasional drunk guest just looking for the jakes, he'd surely welcome the excitement of getting to throw Johnny right out the window if Johnny tried to sneak or bluff or even bribe his way by.

Hmm. Excitement? He could do that.

Johnny eeled out from under his new friend's arm. "Let me get you a refill!"

The guy beamed at him, amiable but unfocused, and Johnny plucked the glass from his hand and slid along through the crowd.

"Excuse me, miss?"

The redheaded woman, not as young as she'd looked from across the room, turned a practiced smile at him. "Sorry, honey, we're not ready for business just yet. But get yourself a drink."

"I'm not here for business," he said. "Or—not that kind of business."

That caught her interest. She looked him up and down. "Well why on earth not?"

He'd almost have blushed. But instead he said, "It's a long story, sister. I, uh...I have this friend—"

"And she don't like you makin' other friends?" she asked, poking the tip of her tongue into the corner of her mouth.

His pal was looking around already for his fresh drink, and Johnny didn't want him coming over here just yet. He angled his body partly away from her, so it might not look like they were getting too cozy. "No, he doesn't care."

"Ohh." Her eyes and mouth rounded knowingly.

"What? No, I—" He shook his head like a wet dog. "Look, miss..."

"Fifi."

"Miss Fifi. I wonder if I could ask you to do me a favor. I'd make it worth your while."

Her expression started glazing over, shiny and practiced, and Johnny cursed his phrasing. "No no, I told you, I'm not in the market. It's just, my friend—" He searched her face, beseechingly. "How much trouble would you get in if I asked you to start an argument?"

The mask over her features abruptly cracked, and the woman herself looked out, interested. "Like a ruckus?"

"Yeah. Like that."

She tapped her cheek. "Huh. Well—best way to start a ruckus is to make a scene. Best way to make a scene is to ruffle the fish. See?" And Johnny, glancing over the room full of tuxedoed fish flopping this way and that and ready for hauling into the boat, did see.

"Problem is," she went on, thoughtfully, "you ruffle the fish, you're disruptin' business."

"I can sure cover your evening's pay," he said. "And more. But I don't want you to lose your job. Can we still manage it?"

She pondered, tracing one fingernail along her lower lip, looking around the room. "Is he your friend?"

Johnny looked, brightening despite himself. But of course it wasn't Henry—it was his pal waiting for a refill, who'd caught sight of him and was waving impatiently.

"God, no," he said.

"Ha! Good." She eyed the guy unenthusiastically. "He's a handsy son of a bitch."

"Yeah, tell me," Johnny agreed.

She grinned. "Okay, honey, I'll help ya. You said somethin' about my evening's pay?"

Johnny palmed a generous stack of folding green and passed it to her without the corner of a bill even peeking out. Not a good idea to show fresh meat to a room full of piranhas.

Her pencilled eyebrows rose as she slipped the money into some stealthy spot inside her kimono. "Well! I can definitely get you a grade-A ruckus, don't you worry."

"I really appreciate it, Fifi," he said.

She kissed one fingertip and tapped his nose with it, just in time for Mr. Handsy to wade through the last group of his fellows and pitch up on their shore. "Say! I thought I told you I saw her first!"

Johnny shrugged peaceably. Fifi started to say, "Now, you know how this works, darlin'—", but the man interrupted her with a pinch to the bottom.

"My little penny whistle!" he crowed. "Miss me?"

Her expression remained coy and girlish on the outside, but Johnny knew enough about people's real faces by now to see her thoughts in her eyes. He wished he could give her a "good luck" or something, but instead he just sidled away.

She was good. No sooner had Johnny emerged across the room and propped himself against a wall convenient to the hallway, than she let out a shriek that could shatter glass.

"YOU WANT ME TO WHAT?" she cried, very loudly aghast. "AND WITH A POODLE?!"

There was the solid smack of a hand meeting a face at high speed, and Johnny hoped she'd found it satisfying. It sure sounded satisfying.

The noise levels rose; Handsy was arguing with Fifi, and the rest of the crowd was getting fractious by association. The gorilla perked up and lumbered out into the room, grabbing drunk customers by shoulders and collars, shoving them aside like flotsam.

Oh, they didn't like that. They were professional men, dammit all, and being manhandled by a pug-faced workingman whose evening suit was rumpled at the knees was just a bridge too far. The threatening buzz rose and sharpened, and the crowd closed in around the gorilla.

Johnny didn't run. In fact he very very carefully didn't run. He didn't hurry, he didn't look around for pursuit, he didn't act in any way unlike someone who belonged there. He strode down the hall and around the corner, and behind him in the distance he heard the rising noise finally break in a crashing scuffle.

Fifi, you're a businesswoman, he thought gratefully.

There was no line of light under Burkhalter's office door, but Johnny knocked anyway. Cover stories jostled for precedence in his mind.

Nothing.

He tried the knob. Locked.

Fumbling in his pocket, he remembered everything he'd learned about Burkhalter's violent past. And even as he slipped his card-jimmy between latchplate and jamb, he knew Henry wasn't going to be there. He kept having to blink away terrible pictures: a blood trail. A scrap of rope by some tire tracks. An empty hat on the bank of a river.

But his fingers, well-trained, did their job anyway, and he slipped inside and closed the door very softly. Henry'd been in here not so long ago...maybe there were clues.

He groped forward until he found a piece of furniture, felt like the high back of a wing chair. He pulled the antimacassar off, rolled it up against the base of the door to help block the light, then flicked the switch.

"Turn that goddamn thing off," Henry groaned from his sprawl on a leather couch. "Offffff."

click

Johnny stood in the dark. His night vision had never been so slow before, he could swear it. His heartbeat thumped in his ears. "Henry! Jesus!"

"One of us, anyway," Henry said. His voice sounded slow and thick.

"You know, you're late." Johnny started for him before his eyes were fully ready and barked his shin on some damn thing.

There was no joke at that, no barb, no answer at all—only a long, heavy breath.

Johnny dropped to his knees by the couch and grabbed hold of him. "Where you hurt?" He patted carefully around Henry's middle, up to his chest, up under his jacket and around his back.

"S'good to see you," Henry said.

"...Likewise," Johnny said, trying to concentrate. He slipped a hand around the back of Henry's neck, warm and faintly sweating, then carefully up along the back of his head and through his fine hair. Nothing. Nothing at the crown of his head, nothing on his forehead, his temples.

He patted the back of his hand against Henry's lean cheek. "What'd he do? Hit you with something?"

"Well," Henry said slowly, "I'll tell you."

Johnny waited. But nothing. "Henry!"

"Did I tell you it's good to see you?" Henry's hand groped out and found Johnny's shoulder, squeezed it.

"Is anything broken?" Johnny tried.

"Nn-nn."

"Then what happened to you?" He could see better in the dimness at last, and Henry was smiling at him with half-closed eyes.

"Old Burkie gave me a very...very nice glass of whiskey."

"Just the one?"

"Mm-hm." The bliss on Henry's face wavered for the first time. "He must've been...tipped off."

Poisoned, Johnny thought, going cold. Rumbled and poisoned and left for dead. He grabbed Henry by the wrist and hauled him up to a sitting position. Henry made a complaining noise. "Gettin' you out of here. Now."

Henry wasn't a big man, but he wasn't a slip either. It must have been fear that gave Johnny the power to jerk him right up to his feet and then drape him over Johnny's shoulder in two quick moves. Johnny wrapped one arm around Henry's thighs and headed for the door.

Henry was saying something.

"What?" Johnny said, listening hard for any hallway noise.

Henry spoke again, one syllable, his mouth moving against Johnny's back.

"Well where is it?"

"I...put it down. Someplace."

"We stick around any longer, they can bury you in that hat," Johnny said tightly.

The hallway sounded clear. He headed out, hurrying the rest of the way down the hall toward the back of the building.

"He didn't have a coatrack," Henry said, sounding resigned.

The hall turned once more and ended in a flight of concrete steps heading up to a storm-cellar-style wooden door. He couldn't get it levered open with one hand, so eventually he had to let go of Henry altogether in order to wrestle with it. Henry stayed perfectly balanced, dangling peacefully. And he obviously wasn't unconscious; sometimes he'd hold on to Johnny's waist with one hand, when Johnny had to shift his weight. He seemed happy right where he was.

Johnny finally got the latch unhooked and the door flipped open, and he scrambled up into the warm, damp summer night, feeling Henry's extra weight burning in his thigh muscles. He kicked the bulkhead closed and headed for their coupe, parked out past the crowd of customer vehicles, almost at the edge of a cornfield.

"Don't worry, Henry," he said. His breath puffed out heavily into the air; gnats swirled and divebombed his face. "Get you to a hospital."

Henry said something against his back, longer this time, and he couldn't make it out. He was a little too busy: he got the passenger door open, wedged Henry's feet into the footwell, and sort of folded him in along the front bench like a great big rolled-up carpet. He was sweating and gasping with the effort, but when he got another look at Henry's face, Henry was still looking at him with those half-closed, lazy, good-natured eyes, like Johnny was the best thing he'd seen all day.

Johnny closed the door as softly as he could and scrambled around to the driver's side. He shoved Henry up, climbed in, and drove away with Henry sagging against him. They bumped away down the farmhouse lane with no one in pursuit. Johnny spared a moment to wish Fifi well.

"You don't know where—Henry!" Johnny jogged him with his elbow. "Stay awake! You don't know where the closest hospital is, do you?"

"Nnnn." Henry leaned on him heavily.

"Okay," Johnny said grimly. "You know I'm gonna have to ask a cop or something, once we're back to civilization. And you know how much we love cops." The surrounding fields, waving with corn under a sliver of a moon, showed no sign of any.

"Ucch," Henry said.

"Well?" Johnny answered helplessly, gripping the steering wheel tightly enough to hurt.

"Pull over."

"Shit—" Johnny jerked the wheel too hard, skidded in the soft dirt of the shoulder, and veered back onto the little road in a cloud of dust. " You sick? Yeah, maybe if you're—if you can get rid of it or something—"

"Pull over, wouldja," Henry said without urgency.

Johnny turned off onto a dirt tractor lane and pulled too far in, knocking down a few stalks of corn before stamping on the brakes.

"You need help getting out?"

"Turn off the engine," Henry said.

Johnny obeyed without thinking. "Oh, Christ, Henry, you ain't dying."

Henry pushed his face into Johnny's neck and laughed there, very low. "No," he said. "I ain't."

"Then what—"

Henry opened his mouth against Johnny's throat and kissed him. He bit the line of his jaw, he breathed hotly into his ear.

At first Johnny couldn't speak against the shivers going up his spine and down into his belly. Eventually all he managed was: "Henry...?"

"It was just a Mickey," Henry said. He rubbed Johnny's arm, took his hand.

"Wasn't—" Johnny managed. Their joined hands lay on his thigh. "Uh—wasn't Burkhalter trying to kill you?"

"Nah." Henry nuzzled along the line of muscle from Johnny's neck to his shoulder. "Probably thought I was a cop...he's a thug, but no cop-killer. So he knocks me out and he's long gone."

"Oh." Some of the fear drained from behind Johnny's breastbone, but there was still something bubbling there. "What're you doing?"

Henry sighed. "I'm just so glad to see you."

"That's what you—" Henry moved their hands slowly up his thigh, and Johnny jumped. "S'what you said."

"I always am, you know?" Henry murmured.

"Now hey." Johnny gripped Henry's hand harder and moved it down to his knee. "You got Mickey Finned. I'm not gonna—"

"Kiss me."

That gently authoritative rumble was so hard to resist. Johnny never really had before. And those words spoken so directly, no guessing or double-talk or trickery, sparked something hot behind his ribs.

"C'mon." Henry slipped his hand free and slid his fingers up the inside of Johnny's leg.

Johnny instinctively eased his thighs apart. "Oh, Jesus."

"No," Henry said sleepily. "I don't...think so." He brushed his cheek against Johnny's, his stubble rasping.

Johnny had looked at Henry some, early on, he could admit that to himself. More than some. And he'd found himself wishing that Henry would see how he felt. But after a while, it was clear that Henry wasn't on offer. Johnny could admire, and so he did—who could help it?—but he'd known it would never come to anything.

Until now. The heat in his chest now had words to it that made Johnny blush. At last, he thought, like some kind of wistful kid. Oh, at last.

There was nothing Johnny wanted more, in that moment, in that car under that moon, with only the fields whispering and rustling for miles around. Henry at last was heavy against him, almost on him, his mouth curled in a smile against Johnny's pulse where it skipped and hammered.

But he tried one more time anyway; it just wasn't fair to jump on the first drunken pass. And the morning would be soon enough—looking forward to it made Johnny's heart expand, not to mention his cock. "Come on, let's get you home. Sleep it off."

"No," Henry said at once in his ear. Under the haze, he sounded alarmed. "No, it's gotta be now."

"Henry?"

"Right now. Here, let me—" Henry's hand pressed, rubbed hard. Too hard.

"Hey," Johnny said uneasily.

"Hmm?" The hand curved over his cock through his trousers. But those fingers, elegant and skilled and usually so precise—now they were splayed, grasping, sloppy. Just like his hurried voice, just like his wet breath.

"Wait a second—"

"Hmmmm."

"Henry—I don't think this is a good idea."

Henry's fingers tweaked awkwardly at his fly. "This says different."

"I know it." He laid his hand over Henry's, there in his lap, and took a reluctant hold to lift it off.

Henry let out a hot, urgent sigh against his neck. "C'mon, let me, before..." His voice slurred away into something almost incomprehensible. Almost.

"What did you say?" Johnny asked, feeling cold. He lifted Henry's scrabbling hand easily now.

"What," Henry said. His hand, clammy and cool, tugged weakly against Johnny's grip, and his head was so heavy on Johnny's shoulder, as if he couldn't hold it up at all.

"Tell me what you said. 'Before'...?"

"Before," Henry mumbled obediently. "Before this wears off."

Johnny clutched Henry's hand between both of his until it stopped struggling. The whole time, he looked out through the windshield at the stalks of corn knocked askew. One ear had fallen onto the hood, a gash in the husk exposing the silk.

Once the hand went limp, Johnny lowered it to the seat and started the car again. He ground the gears a couple times trying to get it in reverse, and Henry had no comment, which was how Johnny knew for sure he was out. The sharp backward turn out of the cornfield rolled him off of Johnny's shoulder, his head lolling back against the seat.

Henry slept the rest of the way home. Even doped to unconsciousness, there was something taut about his face, the tension never quite ironed out.

Johnny managed to wake him at the curb outside their boarding house. Half-wake him, anyway. He didn't speak, his eyes blurry and far away; but he did accept Johnny's arm to haul him out of the car, across the broad porch, up the stairs, and down onto his bed. His eyes closed again the second he hit the mattress.

Johnny took his shoes off and covered him with a sheet, and pulled a chair up outside his room to listen to his breathing for an hour or two. It was even, deep enough, not too slow and not too rough. Sounded like a man sleeping off a pleasant drunk. Johnny's mind wandered to its music, and he dozed off with the chair tipped back against the wall.


The sound of the flushing toilet woke him. It was still nighttime; a streetlight cast its weak yellow glow through the window on the landing. He blinked at the ceiling as the water ran in the bathroom sink.

Henry emerged and looked down at him. His shirt was thoroughly rumpled, his tie gone and buttons undone halfway down his chest. No longer was he gazing at Johnny with that sleepy, hungry look. His eyes were remote, and tired, and hollow.

"How you feeling?" Johnny asked, and let the chair tip forward to come down on all four legs with a thump.

"Better." His voice was hoarse. "Thanks."

"Sorry about—" Burkhalter, Johnny was about to say, but then he glanced at the little flight of stairs leading up to their gossipy landlady's room and said, "—all that. Guess we're out of luck on this job."

"Guess so. Listen, Hooker..." Henry looked at him directly for the first time, and Johnny's heartbeat started skipping back up.

But all Henry said was, "Doesn't that make your neck hurt?"

Johnny rolled his head and felt the crick. "Kind of."

"Well, it's all right now." His teeth showed in a quick smile, one that didn't match those hollow eyes. "No more babysitting."

"If you say so," Johnny said, reaching for a casual tone.

"You're off the board and free," Henry said. "And I want you to know I appreciate it."

He shuffled into his room and started to close the door.

"Henry?" Johnny stood up from his chair, his left leg sizzling faintly with pins and needles.

Henry paused with the door swung almost all the way to. Lifting his eyes to Johnny's again seemed to take some effort. "I do appreciate it," he said. "Everything. And I'm sorrier than..." The hoarseness in his voice burred and cracked, and he shook his head and didn't finish.

The door closed.

Johnny stood in the hall for a minute, easing the muscles in his leg. Then he picked up the chair and went to his own room.

He wasn't sleepy anymore. He lay on his back on top of his neatly-made bed, his hands clenched at his sides.

Kiss me, Henry kept murmuring to him, his voice rumbling all through Johnny's muscles, slurring and loose and not quite right. His hand cupped Johnny's cock, and even though his fingers were warm and cherishing, there was also a sliding imprecision, a dizzy, lost feeling—like they weren't Henry's at all. Like they were desperately clutching at something to keep from falling.

Part of Johnny still had that fragile, bright, breathless feeling, that feeling of at last. But now it was drowning in a heavy, bitter taste, flooding the back of his tongue and down his throat. Before this wears off. And a falling man would grab at anything.

The air was still and humid, like a warm fog, even though his window was open. Crickets sang outside, and sweat built and trickled down his temples and his neck and his bare sides. In those light, damp touches he could still feel Henry's lips on his skin. He abruptly sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

In trousers and undershirt, feet bare in his second-best shoes, he made his way silently down the edge of the stairs and out the front door. The porch swing still had its cushions on, which was a little neglectful and very welcome. He stretched out, rocking the swing with one foot pushing against the floorboards, savoring every tiny hint of a breeze.

He knew he'd never sleep, but at least this way he could chase off some of the sweat that stung his eyes. With every rhythmic back and forth, he reminded himself that he was no worse off than he had been. He'd already known that Henry would never have jumped the fence for him if he were in his right mind. Letting your admiration turn all moonstruck was a game for kids, and Johnny'd worked hard to show Henry that he was sure as hell no kid.

All that mattered was the fact that he and Henry were the best on the big con. Screw everything else. He had what he wanted.

His foot against the floorboards pushed more slowly now...relaxed...and stopped.


Johnny opened his eyes to the fragile light before sunrise, with the sky turning dark blue in the east and a peach haze just starting to spread up from the horizon. He was cool now, his skin dry, though he could feel where the salt had dried on his back and his face.

He heaved himself up. Now last night's crick in his neck had a neighbor on the other side. But he'd woken in time, and at least he'd be able to get inside and upstairs before Mrs. Schwarz came down to start breakfast...he felt a little too bedraggled and emptied-out for fast talk or charm.

As he reached for the screen door handle, the front door opened. And there was Henry.

Henry, fully dressed, immaculate, high-class and natty though bareheaded. Carrying his suitcase.

They both stared.

"Going somewhere?" Johnny asked at last. His voice rasped, and he swallowed against the dryness. His face felt puffy. He was sure the swing cushions had left a crease across his cheek.

"You're still here," Henry said slowly. Winded, like he'd taken a hard fall.

"Did you leave me a goodbye note?" Johnny spoke quietly—it wasn't even dawn, for one thing—but he saw Henry hunch a little.

"Your bed was... It hadn't been slept in."

"Couldn't sleep," Johnny said. Henry still just looked at him, stricken. "Too hot," he added.

Henry nodded.

"So." Johnny scratched his forehead. "Should I get out of your way?"

"I thought it was the reverse," Henry said. "After..."

"You had a rough night."

"I swear, Hooker, I didn't mean to."

"I know," Johnny said. "I know you didn't." And as far as he could hear in his own head, he sounded fine and calm, and not disappointed one bit.

Henry leaned toward him. "You know I'd never—" His words were hushed, tumbling over each other. "I swear if you wanted to stick around, you wouldn't have to...worry."

"I ain't worried," Johnny said, which was true over and above everything. And Henry seemed to hear the truth of it, because something of the horrified pallor of his face seemed to ease off.

"I appreciate that." Henry's hand worked on the handle of the suitcase.

Johnny tried a smile, though he felt so exhausted, and still stung from the loss of his ridiculous hopes. The sooner Henry stopped acting so embarrassed about the very possibility

Kiss me

of Johnny being anything more than his sidekick, the better, really.

Henry's smile back was tentative, but promising. "I won't make you keep jawing about it," he said. "But let me just say this: if you ever need any...reassurance. You know, that I can stay inside the lines and not slip my leash. You can talk to Twist. Or Billie, too, of course she knows. But Twist... Well, we have a lot in common. He can explain."

"Sure," Johnny said absently, and yawned. He liked Twist, and hoped they saw him again soon. Twist really knew how to dress. Twist called him "Tootsie."

Wait just one second.

Henry had already turned to go back inside when Johnny's hand landed on his arm and pulled him around. Even in the middle of the sudden whirl inside his head, Johnny was glad to see Henry's eyes flash up strong, shaking off that strange apologetic cast.

But despite his eyes, he kept cool and still, like the champion dissembler he was. "Something else?"

Johnny held on to Henry's elbow, almost needing it to keep himself steady. "Come help me pack my case."

"All right," said Henry, slow and uncertain.

Johnny followed him up the stairs, both of them quiet on their feet by training and habit. Once they were inside his room, he locked the door and set his back against it.

Henry set his case neatly by the wall and stood watching him. He didn't seem to believe that Johnny really needed any help packing.

"How much do you remember?" Johnny asked.

"My apology wasn't enough, huh."

"How much?"

"It wasn't some kind of blackout, Hooker."

"So you do remember."

Henry rubbed both hands through his hair, hard. "Unfortunately, yes."

Johnny felt a stab of humiliation at that, but before he could answer, Henry continued, low and rapid:

"I think I'll remember it for a long time. Maybe forever. Is that what you want to hear? That I'll have to remember how I...grabbed you? Pawed at you, like one of those cut-rate Casanovas with his hired girl? You didn't sock me, and I wish you had. After what I said."

"What you said," Johnny answered, just as quietly. "You remember that."

"Please stop."

"No, I don't mean— I'm not trying to—" Johnny felt at such a disadvantage, tired and itchy and with his hair surely going every which way. He tried to form the words, but it was hard—on the job they hardly needed any. "I thought I understood you."

"I made a promise," Henry said. "And I meant it. If you can't accept that, I understand."

"Will you listen?" Johnny stepped closer, and saw Henry brace himself. "I only meant—I thought you knew me."

"I did. I do. I told you, it was just—"

"It was just the Mickey," Johnny finished for him. "Isn't that what you said? 'Hurry up before it wears off.' Right?"

Henry's eyes looked so pale in the pre-dawn glow spilling through the open window. "What do you want," he said hopelessly. "Yeah. That was the only way I could—"

"Well what if," Johnny interrupted, "and bear with me here, Henry, but what if that meant that without a good slug of dope you wouldn't want me? What if that's what gets to me the most?"

Henry blinked at him. The silence felt long. Johnny could scarcely believe he'd said it out loud, but as long as everything was on fire and falling down around them, why not? Really, why the ever-loving blue hell not? Light another match, he told himself hysterically.

"Are you—" Henry managed at last, and Johnny could see him having the same trouble making his words obey. If only this were a con, Johnny thought, we'd have it wrapped and mailed by now. "You're saying you..."

"What if I am?" Johnny said.

Henry breathed in and out, looking a little dazed. "I guess I never saw it."

And the sorry thing was, Johnny believed it. He could completely believe it of Henry, the Henry he knew so well, and the last part underneath that he was just now figuring out. He was a sly, quick-talking, brilliant and merciless artist of the big con—and within the small, private circle of trust, a man of ironbound honor and self-control. Johnny had seen it time and again. So this whole time, Henry had kept his distance, precise, meticulous, the tightest leash in the known world—and Johnny had sensed that distance, yes, but read it wrong. So wrong.

He stepped forward again. "Look, then."

Henry did look, right into his eyes, which had been cryingly rare since last night. Johnny felt that spark warming up in his chest again, and he let his eyes search Henry's. There must be more words he could pull together to clear this up, to shake off the ragged edges of shame and frustration all around them.

But he couldn't find any. All he had to lean on now was whatever else they had instead between them, whatever was making them the pair they'd become, soaring through the con like birds on the wing. But did they even still have that? All their reading and guessing this whole night had been nothing but a tangle. They'd never done so bad on any job, ever.

Johnny remembered the first time Henry had taken him through a high-stakes dip, where it all depended on pure sleight of hand and perfectly subtle body language, and if the mark twigged there was no safe way out. Johnny hadn't come up in that kind of world; as a boy he'd hustled pinball, and Luther'd saved him from that to be a street-worker. That's what was in his bones, golden patter and smiles, distraction and speed. But finally Henry had taken him on the dip, and oh was he scared. He'd spent a lot of time cracking jokes at Henry to show him just how not scared he was. Into the deep end, he'd figured, with Henry watching and judging, and if he slipped up, Henry'd be well justified in leaving him there to count his broken bones.

But that wasn't how it had happened. Henry had gone in with him, and somehow with Henry at his back, his hands had steadied amazingly. One pass, the lightest touch, and Johnny was through; they'd made it out alive.

So now he leaned in, crowding Henry, feeling his heat through the fine suit. He tried to clear his head, to think like it really was a job, like the steel-wire tightrope of their connection was there for them underfoot.

Like they were on the same side. Like they were in it together.

Henry must have seen something in his face. Something light touched his eyes and his lips, almost as if he was signalling Johnny across a card table. When they were working, they said novels back and forth with hardly any words at all.

So Johnny kept his mind and his eyes open, as he did during every game, every job. And now he knew, knew, when Henry's reflexive alarm started to fade before something warmer. He knew when Henry was finally easing out at last from behind his careful, honorable walls.

"Well?" he said, watching Henry's eyes shine.

"Well," Henry said, his voice uneven. His tongue touched his lower lip, but that was all. He just looked, and stood careful and still against Johnny's body. Johnny waited a little more, but by now he could tell Henry wasn't going to move first. He really would talk to Twist, next time their paths crossed, because there was a story there and he was gonna find it. In the meantime, here they were, frozen in place, with Henry's heartbeat practically moving his lapels.

Not a trick, not a test. Only one way to get that across. Johnny slipped in under Henry's jacket, unfastening buttons when he came across them. Henry twitched and sucked in a breath. But he was letting his body read Johnny's now, and accurately, moving just right to ease a sleeve or let fabric slide by. Johnny got him out of his armor neat and quick without a sound. Jacket fell, waistcoat, tie, shirt, leaving them matched in trousers and undershirts and hot, quick breath.

A pickpocket, he thought, who takes everything except the pockets. And he grinned encouragingly into Henry's flushed face.

"Kid," Henry managed at last, like that grin had snapped something loose, "you look like you just fell out of a boxcar."

Johnny rubbed a slow thumb across his own unshaven chin. "You like that?"

"Christ." Henry took hold of his face in both hands and kissed him like he was starving. He bit and licked and soothed, barely suppressing little noises in his throat, and even through that upwelling burst of careless, hopeful desperation, it was nothing like last night. His hands were deft and tender without thought, his mouth and his straining body fit with Johnny's like they'd planned it beforehand. He walked Johnny over backward down onto the coverlet and gasped against his jaw.

They didn't talk. And this time they didn't have to. It was like the best kind of a job, where they had their goal and they had each other, thrilling and sure, and off they went. Johnny tried a few times to get a noise out of Henry, just for the excitement of watching him bite it back, here in this thin-walled little boarding house room. Henry's eyes burned, delighted, challenged. And he pinned Johnny down on the narrow bed and showed him what long experience could do. Johnny almost yelped aloud, turning it into an unconvincing cough, and Henry laughed triumphantly against his bare, sweaty skin.

They were both as slick as oil by the time it was over, with the dawn breezes gone and the morning warmth building. Henry's head rested on Johnny's chest, and Johnny petted and scratched through his damp hair. The scent of breakfast, eggs and bacon and maybe hash, was starting to rise through the floor.

"I could use a bath," Johnny said after a while.

"You could," Henry agreed, but his arm tightened around him.

"Feel like I got bit by a million mosquitoes."

Henry kissed one of his nipples. "Oh is that what that is."

"Listen, you no-good double-foxed grifter," Johnny said, easing Henry's head rhythmically back and forth by the hair. "You ready to get back in the saddle or what?"

One of Henry's brows twitched. "You better order me a dozen oysters. I'm an old man."

"Pfffft." Johnny wriggled out of his heavy, trusting grasp. "I meant back to Burkhalter's."

Henry tipped his head up and rested his chin on the tangled landscape of the blanket. "Yeah," he said at once. "M'not leaving my hat there. They don't deserve it."

"Okay then." Johnny threw on his dressing gown. "Baths first, and we better hurry if we want to get any of that bacon."

He grabbed his shaving tackle and headed out into the hall. Then he opened the door again and poked his head in, watching Henry sprawled across the little bed, his taut, spare body gleaming with sweat and a few purpling bites.

"Any ideas yet?"

"Oh, sure," Henry said, and he wasn't kidding. "There's a couple ways we could go, with Burkie gone and no note for mama. I was just thinking, it'd be a clearer choice if we already knew somebody else in the house."

"Uh huh," Johnny said. "Hey Henry?"

"Yep." Henry looked at him with lazy, warm appreciation.

"You ever meet Miss Fifi?"

"Can't say I have."

"Well, you're in for a treat." Johnny headed back out, tossing his shaving kit from hand to hand, and their plan was already well and truly in motion.