And every single version of life is a strange disguise.
They pull into the lot, one streetlamp lit. Bill cuts the ignition. The neon sign flickers above, his face cast in red then shadow, red then shadow. The Sequoyah Motel. Adairsville, Georgia, off Highway 41. This is after. After Brudos and after Speck, after what they call interviews because interrogation is too impersonal. After they stood on the side of the road in the late afternoon Georgia heat and stared up at the pruned branches cut away from the power lines. Red, then shadow.
This is after Bill walked in on Holden jacking off in the bathroom of their motel room in Salem, Oregon. There are only four other cars in the lot and the sign above can’t decide if the NO before VACANCY should remain lit or not.
Holden watches Bill’s profile, the cigarette hanging from his mouth, collecting ash. Holden knows that some killers leave behind a crime scene perfectly staged. A tableau waiting to be scrutinized for detail. Motive. Clues used to determine the identity of the artist, the killer. It’s not necessarily about wanting to be caught. Holden knows that, too.
It’s about wanting to be seen.
Bill sighs. Looks straight ahead instead of at Holden. “Fuck it, you hungry?” Holden shrugs. Bill starts the car again.
“You’re the wrong kind of square, y’know.” Debbie had said it from her perch on the scant space afforded by her kitchen counter. She was wearing one of his shirts, and only one of his shirts. She had long legs, her toe almost scraping the scuffed tile floor. She emphasized the sentence with a fork waved in his direction. Eggs sizzled on the skillet beside her, the smell unappetizing. This was a week ago, a month. Time spent on the road had a way of flattening it.
“What’s that mean?” he asked. He was sitting at the kitchen table, built only for two. He was naked, painfully aware of it. He had seen the implicit challenge spark bright in Debbie’s eyes when he stood, after. The sheets rumpled, the used rubber in the wastebasket, his shirt wrapped around her body.
“Means you don’t fit anywhere.” She hopped down off the counter and turned her back to him, the subject closed.
Sometimes Holden thinks Debbie only entered his life to serve as the conscience he so desperately needs. This is neither fair to her nor to Bill, who all too often clearly thinks he is playing this part for the both of them. But he hears her in his head a lot, judgmental in that way of hers that never actually sounds like a judgment but instead academic, the preface to a debate. He thinks he’ll always hear her, that he’s taken something from her she didn’t know she was giving. That’s not to say he doesn’t think they’ll be together in this future when he still hears her voice. It’s just that he doesn’t think of the future when it comes to the both of them. He’s sure that’s not a good sign, but he doesn’t think about that either.
In Pennsylvania, Bill slept in the bed opposite Holden’s. This was before, time flattened. Bill was asleep. He didn’t snore so much as he breathed noisily, each breath in and out heavy, as if it required a great effort to stay alive. Holden had rolled to his front, ground his hips into the hard mattress, bit his fist. There was no relief. That was good. That wasn’t what he wanted.
In Georgia, they get dinner. The top button of Bill’s shirt is undone, the hideous geometric-patterned tie he wears loosened around his neck, still knotted.
Conversation has stalled out, the unopened file from Adairsville PD set on the table between them.
Tension has settled between them too, attributable not just to Oregon but, perhaps, Holden’s behavior in general. Surprisingly, it makes Holden miss the old days the same way Bill misses road school. He doesn’t admit it, or at least he hasn’t to Holden — this is yet another thing they do not discuss — but it’s there. Bill had liked visiting those precincts, had liked to believe he was helping. Holden can see that. He liked meeting the men on the ground, different enough from the men they returned to in Virginia.
The peas on their plates are gray matter mush, the steak raw and bleeding out. Holden eats a forkful. It doesn’t taste like much of anything.
“I love my wife,” Bill says, deliberate and out of nowhere. Continuing a conversation Holden didn't but should’ve known they were having. He says it like a guilty man about to be hanged. Not because he doesn’t love her, Holden doesn’t think that, but because he has and he will continue to betray her. A thousand tiny cuts. Missed dinners. The golf clubs. His impatience with a son only she understands, and even then, there is a deficit.
Her name said to an imprisoned killer.
Holden has tried to catalog his own similar failings, finds he lacks the interest for it. He didn’t lock the bathroom door.
This started, Holden supposes, like anything else: out of morbid curiosity. Bill had told Jerry Brudos his wife’s name. Holden was there; he heard it. He was sharing parts of himself with these men. He was already sharing himself with Holden.
Holden looks across the table to him. The loneliness to Bill is a real, living, breathing thing. An extension of himself, humming, an electrical current Holden can feel. It’s different from the loneliness that Holden had known before he met Debbie. He’s still lonely with Debbie, with Bill. Holden wants to believe that sparked curiosity is solely clinical in nature. He wants to know what you can do with a desperate man. He wants to experience that, too. He wants to know if he can feel that, what that could push him to do.
“I never doubted that,” Holden says, after too long a beat. The tines of his fork scrape across his plate.
“Please. Don’t romanticize this shit.”
Holden’s in the bathroom. Georgia, the Sequoyah Motel, after dinner, a towel low on his hips.
“They all find a way to rationalize it," Holden continues. "To — to make what they have done acceptable in whatever warped worldview they’ve adopted. It’s fascinating,” Holden says from the bathroom, the door ajar.
“I said, don’t romanticize it.”
Holden drops the string of used floss into the trash, ignoring him. “You can see the rational in it.”
“No, Holden,” Bill says. "I can't." From the bed. Holden doesn’t know why — he should know why; that’s the job — but he finds the image of Bill, undressed, boxers and undershirt, glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, sat up in bed reading to be comforting. It’s routine. Maybe that’s why. He’s seen it before. There’s safety in the familiar. He doesn’t think it’s either of those things. He bares his teeth in the mirror to check if his gums are bleeding.
“There’s nothing rational in what these men have done. And, frankly, it’s terrifying you see the logic in any of it.” Bill says it after Holden steps into the room, shuts the bathroom light off.
“There is to them.”
Holden stands there in his towel. Bill looks up at him over his glasses.
“You gonna put some clothes on?” Holden doesn’t say anything.
Maybe they’re both thinking the same thing — Holden in the bathroom, his cock in his hand, guilty and that much closer to coming now that he’s been seen — and that’s why it feels like all the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. Like someone has put a plastic bag over both their heads. Steam and humidity seeps in from the bathroom; sweat and water from the shower bead down from Holden’s hairline to follow his spine.
They didn’t talk about it. They don’t talk about it. That’s fine. There are a lot of things they don’t talk about: Bill’s military career before the FBI; Nancy, beyond the non-sequitur at dinner, his marriage to her and whatever that might entail that Holden had no point of reference to imagine or understand; Holden’s life, from before, what it means to be born in New York, raised elsewhere, why he uses that as a bargaining chip to prove himself as someone he neither is nor isn’t. They talked incessantly about these men and the things they had done but never talked about what these men did to them. They didn’t talk about Holden in the bathroom. They didn’t discuss how or why Bill stood there too long in the doorway to write it off as an sort of accident, with any bit of plausible deniability.
Bill looks tired. Exasperated. Neither, something else Holden can’t quite rationalize and finds it easiest to call exhaustion. Impatience, even.
Bill takes his glasses off and places them on the nightstand with purposeful deliberation. A crime scene prepared exclusively for him.
Holden watches him stand. Bill doesn’t move further. Somewhere on the road, somewhere between Quantico and San Francisco and Fairfield and Altoona, Bill had gone and learned him better than Holden has ever thought to give him credit for.
In Oregon, Holden didn’t lock the bathroom door. He left it open, just a crack. He had already mounted a defense should he need it: he thought it had shut, the motel was old, the doorframe warped. He was warped.
That was how Bill caught him, the coincidence of it clumsy and obvious, uncharacteristic for Holden, and they both knew it. Both knew that made it intentional. This was after the second time they had visited Brudos together, after he had told the story about his mother. He was sharing himself, too. Holden did not yet know there would not be a third.
There was a beat between them where nothing happened. Holden’s fist didn’t move from his cock and Bill didn’t move from the open door. He felt every muscle twitch.
“Is this some childhood trauma kind of thing?” Bill had asked. A stunned edge to it, but that could have been the whiskey. If Bill watched Holden with caution, Holden did the same. He counted drinks with no agenda beyond collecting facts. But there was something beneath the bluster Holden found interesting, that made his gut clench and his fist follow suit.
“Are you going to shut the door?” he asked, and his voice did not stumble.
“I’m not one of your experiments,” Bill says, now. He’s slightly red in the face, and though his words are calm and measured, they are not without a touch of menace. Holden hasn’t been on the receiving end of that since their first road school outing. Bill steps towards him. Closer. “You don’t get to push my buttons and then act like you’ve discovered something you can use against me.”
Holden looks back at him, his face determinedly blank. That is exactly what he gets to do. To Bill. To Debbie. To Jerry Brudos. Ed fucking Kemper.
“So I do?” Holden asks, quiet. “I push your buttons?”
“Fuck you, Holden.” Weary, not angry. The same verbal throwing in of the towel from dinner hours earlier. When he said he loved his wife. “You never know when to fucking stop.”
Standing there, face to face, Bill that much bigger, broader, than Holden, his mind lights up with each and every story they have heard or uncovered about a victim outmaneuvered and overpowered by a predator. This, he thinks, could be an object lesson. But the threat from Bill though isn’t violence. It’s something worse. It is, he thinks, the threat of getting what he doesn’t want to admit he wanted.
Holden forgets. He forgets it when he’s seated across from their subjects and he’s forgotten it here in this motel room. It’s shared. It's mutual. It’s not the hand on the hot burner, snapped back when the heat’s too much. In the end, instead, when you get too close you both get burned.
It happens that fast. Holden suspects that’s what most people would say of anything they made the mistake of not anticipating. It happens that fast. Bill’s standing there in front of him, close enough to touch, and then he has him, thrown, facedown on the bed. Holden says, “What?” muffled and confused, and then just as quickly abandons the line of questioning. He wants, he realizes. He wants to see how this plays out.
The surprise of being thrown down to the bed is only amplified when he feels Bill’s weight press against him. Both the bed and Bill are solid and firm, unyielding. His heart hammers, percussive in his ears. There’s a terror in not knowing what comes next. Knocked off center, gone from trying to play Bill the way he plays everyone else, trying to get in everyone’s head to see out from their eyes to this: at his mercy. Is this what he wanted? What had he wanted? Does he want to know? Does he get to know? He’s not the only one asking: Bill is, too.
“Is this what you wanted? Huh? This what you’re playing at?”
The low threat to the question isn’t the only thing that lives in his voice, and Holden sucks in a sharp breath, rubs his face against the comforter.
He feels Bill’s hand then, the curl of his fingers, as Bill holds Holden down by the back of his neck, face first in the musty floral bedspread, slippery under him. Bill’s weight presses into him, knees on either side of his body, Bill’s hips, his groin, a suggestion behind him. It’s not enough.
He can hear Kemper’s words in his head, about how good it is, fucking someone in the ass. It stuck with him. Everything Kemper says sticks with him. Everything all of them say. He tapes it, he takes notes, but he remembers everything. He grinds his hips into the mattress; Bill’s grip tightens on his neck before he moves, too.
Bill rocks his hips into his ass, the towel slipping, and Holden’s more ashamed of the whine that escapes his mouth than how he tries to push himself back onto Bill. It’s a pantomime of fucking. Bill could split him apart. Holden’s arms tremble as he tries to hold himself up. He wants Bill’s arms to match but Bill is consistent, unerringly steady. The only thing that belies Bill is the way his breath shudders in and out of him, just the once. Like he has his own uncertainty, he has to commit himself to this, whatever this is they’re doing to each other.
Just as suddenly as he was on him, Bill pulls off. Holden can’t decide if he is relieved or disappointed. He doesn’t have the time to process it before he feels Bill’s hands on him again, rolling him to his back. Still under him.
The towel across his hips just a suggestion at this point, the pale cut of his hip bared, the towel crooked and covering his thigh, his cock, lewd and twitching. Bill slips his hand under the corner of the towel, his hand reaching for his hip. Bill’s forearm brushes against Holden’s half-hard cock and he makes a quiet choked noise. He doesn’t move beyond that, Holden laying still under him, the only place they are touching his hand on his hip.
“Aren’t you going to do something?” Holden asks, his voice steadier than he expected. He already feels overwhelmed and he has barely even touched him.
He doesn’t fully recognize the look that casts over Bill’s face, but he’s moving now, the full weight of him bearing down on Holden. He can feel him, cock hardening against his thigh. The towel bunches up, the friction enough to make his back arch funny, Bill’s fingers bite into his hip, holding him in place. Bill’s head drops down; he’s breathing heavily, Holden can feel the heat of it, at the bend where neck becomes shoulder. Holden’s palms are sweaty when he rests them on Bill’s arms, unsure and cautious, restless all at once.
Bill smells like aftershave applied hours ago and miles away that morning. Before their flight, before the burnt coffee served at the Adairsville precinct. Before the hours spent that built and brought them here. He can’t remember what Debbie smells like. He thinks it’s bergamot, spicy. Tart. The men they meet in those prisons they visit, men he cannot bring himself to name now because it’s only here, pressed against Bill’s body, face-to-face, that he understands the need for distance — these men smell of sour old sweat and disinfectant bought in bulk. They smell like nothing. They might as well be figments of a perverse imagination. They are entirely human. Debbie once said something about how he walked a fine line between two worlds, but he did not listen to what she said and he did not pause to consider what she meant. Instead he had a file open before him or he had her legs open and there was always a more pressing matter than the words that left her mouth.
His breath is stuck in his chest as he watches Bill lift his head to him. Their bodies are flush against each other, Bill’s thigh between Holden’s legs. His mouth is right there.
That first kiss is like a hesitation wound — Bill’s mouth barely touches Holden’s. Both their eyes are open, watchful, too close to see each other clearly. Holden gasps all the same when he feels the light pressure of Bill’s tongue tracing the seam of his lips. He parts open for him and Bill’s eyes flutter shut, the rumble of his groan felt more than heard. The kiss goes ugly in a hurry, feels wrong to call it a kiss, like he’s romanticizing things he shouldn’t again.
There’s something nasty about it, Bill’s mouth on Holden’s, harsh and demanding. As if they have traveled to a place even beyond intimacy — masks removed, revealing all that’s ever been hidden, even from themselves. Bill’s mouth tastes like stale smoke, cheap rye, flesh. Alarmingly, achingly, human. That same stutter-shock he feels when he finds Debbie’s pulse hammering beneath his grip, bright and alive.
He sucks on Bill’s tongue, the answering jolt of surprise as Bill pushes his hips heavy into Holden’s. The violent physical immediacy of it all, it's the actual versus the imagined. Did he imagine this? Would he deny that? He arches under Bill, lets the thought fizzle out. For someone who over-analyzes the motivations of everyone else, the why for the behavior that cannot rationally be explained, it feels good to let go. To give himself a pass. To not question himself and just act. Just take. He will not wonder if; he will not ask why. Not here. Not yet. He hopes Bill is thinking the same.
He must not be, because he mumbles against Holden's mouth, again, “This what you wanted?”
Holden doesn’t answer; he lifts his hips, pushes them against Bill’s, lets his teeth snag his bottom lip.
Because, yes, this is what he wanted: step by step, as carefully executed as any scientific method Wendy ties herself to and calls it safe, he has brought Bill to this — ragged and hungry and mean, that fuse of his that always threatens to spark now at full dangerous flame. Doing what every man has done in time immemorial: taking what he wants because the alternative is too unbearable. Because Holden could never articulate this as anything he’s ever wanted. He imagines the same is true of Bill: buttoned-up, that old-school crew cut, the family man, the quintessential G-man. But maybe — maybe, that ugly voice that lives at the base of his skull suggests — maybe he is wrong. About Bill, about anyone he questions and thinks he has reached a rapport, an understanding. About himself. Doubt is a blade slotted in him, unforgiving, making him bleed out in his own way under Bill’s hands, his mouth, making him whimper and confess all the same, “Yes, yes.”
His fingers hook, more tentative than he would like, into the waistband of Bill’s boxers. He shivers at the answering squeeze on his hip, Holden’s cock pressed against Bill’s through the fabric.
Bill pulls back from him, spits in his hand and grips Holden’s cock. Holden muffles a high, strangled moan against Bill's mouth. Bill’s grip isn’t tight enough, the lazy rhythm of his hand not enough — he’s teasing him, testing. Holden grabs at Bill’s ass, pulls him closer into him, and the stutter of Bill’s hand as his hips roll into Holden is even better. Holden slides a hand under his boxers, grabbing at his bare ass; there’s a similar kind of falling, lost sound from Bill that dissolves into a low and filthy, humorless, laugh. His mouth smears off of Holden’s, latches onto the hinge of his jaw, down his throat.
“Didn’t think you had it in you,” Bill says, voice as rasping and abrasive as the five o’clock shadow that scrapes across Holden’s damp throat. He swallows hard. He doesn’t like that, the words, not the sting; he pushes into Bill’s hand all the same. He doesn’t like the way Bill is looking down at him, too much freighted in one face. So he drags his boxers down, his movements jerky and clumsy, almost frantic. His cock is thick like the rest of him, leaking already. He wants to know what his cock feels pressed against his. He doesn’t want to know why this matters.
Bill obliges. They are uncoordinated, directionless against each other. Bill’s hand guides up the ladder of Holden’s ribs, Holden’s blunt fingernails dig into Bill’s ass.
“Fucking Christ, Holden,” Bill says, a funny breathless note of surprise that spreads across Holden’s face.
Bill ruts against him with the recklessness and the bitter resigned shame of someone who has done this before. Indicative of a history Holden has no idea how to investigate, beyond this. Men are messy with their affection. He thinks of Bill after that car crash, sitting there at the bar, speaking as if someone had slit him down the middle and everything that poured out was slippery and warm, ungraspable. He thinks this is a lot like that.
He thinks of the list, words crossed out. He thinks of his name, words crossed out. He thinks of every line he has come to cross, all the future ones he will traverse. He thinks it forms a grid. A target. The man at the center isn’t him, but it could be. Will be. He attaches his mouth to Bill’s. A tongue swipes across spit-shiny teeth.
The rough carpet abrades his knees as he drops down before Bill. He’s never done this before.
He thinks about confessing this to Debbie, seated at her tiny kitchen table, a gulf opened between them. I had Bill’s cock in my mouth, he would say, he thinks, now, as he has Bill’s cock in his mouth. I sucked it, he’d say, I sucked his fat cock. He’d say it calmly, a story that happened to someone else. A different Holden Ford. I liked it, he’d say. This Holden Ford.
He takes in and catalogs it all: the stretch of his mouth, the ache to his jaw, messy and inexpert, his saliva and Bill’s pre-come dripping down his chin. The taste of him, the feel of his flesh in his mouth. He grips the base of Bill’s cock, the way he would like it himself. Bill shifts his hips up into it, grunts, likes it, too.
He’s never going to tell her.
Holden gags, the head of his cock hitting too deep, Bill’s control slipping. His throat convulses, Bill’s hips buck, but there’s that same self-consciousness, that same uncertainty he had those first few times with Debbie. “Is this good?” he asks, breathless, the taste of him still flat on his tongue even as he pulls his mouth off of him. He can’t catch his breath; he’s so hard it hurts.
The low start to a chuckle from Bill bleeds into a groan. “Jesus. Fuck. I look like it’s good?” He threads a hand through Holden’s hair, still damp from the shower, and he drags his mouth back down towards his cock, shiny with Holden’s spit. He lets him lead him. He likes that. He likes when Bill pulls his hair, likes the raw feel to his throat as he lets Bill’s cock go too deep again and again.
Bill’s speaking. He’s saying, “That’s it,” but the words have gone soft and malleable, dirty. Holden closes his eyes. He can see Debbie perched on the end of his bed, his anonymous room in his anonymous apartment, in that black lingerie and those shiny black heels, pronouncing the word deviant from a mouth painted red unlike how she has ever looked in life or in his bed. His cock twitches.
Bill tries to pull Holden off when he comes, his grip on his hair making his scalp sting, but Holden forces his mouth back down. Out of stubbornness, that same curiosity that got him here in the first place.
After, Holden buries his face against Bill’s thigh, coarse hair sticking to his wet mouth, his gasps wheezing out of him as he pulls at himself. Bill’s fingers drag through his hair again, drag his head up, and Holden looks up at him.
“Go on then,” he says. “Show me.” Holden falls back on his heels and he does.
He thinks and he doesn't interrogate. He thinks: a sharp blade scraped across a bared throat. He thinks: come spread through the hair leading down Bill’s chest. He thinks: the panic that spikes a violent defense. On his knees, begging. Begging, begging —
“Oh god. Please. Please, please,” even though it’s his hand working himself.
“That’s it,” Bill says again. It’s the guiding gentleness of his tone that does it.
After, it’s the silence of the room, their ragged breath. It’s mutual. He watches Bill rise, some of his own come on his shin. He grabs his boxers. Without a word, he shuts the bathroom door.
Their plane’s stuck on the Atlanta runway. Holden combs through the recent interview notes he packed. Choice transcript notes from Brudos. Speck. Kemper. The photocopied file from the Adairsville PD. He lets the words swim before him for a brief moment and then he blinks. You ask the wrong questions sometimes. You chase the wrong leads. He doesn’t like how Bill is looking at him.
Bill’s elbow is perched on the armrest separating them, a lit cigarette pointed towards Holden.
“You have no idea,” Bill starts and then he stops. He shakes his head, like he’s seen something he shouldn’t. That he can’t take back. He takes a drag off his cigarette. Maybe he’s sad, mournful even. Maybe he’s repulsed. Perhaps afraid. Holden thinks he is supposed to be able to read him better than this.
“What?” Holden says again. The plane starts to taxi down the rain-wet runway. Bill doesn’t answer.
“You walk into these precincts like you wouldn’t know a punch in the face.” Bill pointed at him. “These men can smell that.”
“They can’t smell that.”
A sidelong smug look from Bill, bitten down on a sour lemon of a laugh. Holden felt his own inadequacy, tried to hide it. He felt that quiet fear that not only Bill but all these men could look straight through him. That they assumed he only knew violence secondhand. He’d been a witness to it, same as Bill, as any other beat cop. He said as much to Bill.
“Yeah,” Bill said, hands braced on top of the rented baby blue Nova, driver’s side door open. This was Akron, Ohio, the third stop on the road school tour. Holden only remembers it because between the jostling of the plane as it took to the tarmac at the Akron-Canton airport and their arrival at the station, Bill had treated him to an unexpected treatise on the history of rock n’roll. Alan Freed, WAKR Akron, dead at 43. “You could at least pretend you find me interesting,” he had said when he put the car in park. Holden had not answered; The Platters were singing on the car radio.
Bill was watching him, eyes hidden by a pair of sunglasses even though the afternoon was gray. “But when witnesses bleed we got another name for them. Let’s get out of here, grab some dinner, before the flight out.” Lexington was next, or it was Wheeling or Kalamazoo. It didn’t matter; each city became the same old brick and mortar police station, the same men — either green and wet behind the ears or sloping down past middle-age towards lassitude and a widening waistline — and the same photographs the locals lacked the vocabulary and stomach to understand.
Holden got in the car. He had thought the word Bill meant was victim. He hadn't considered the battered scraped knuckles. Instead, he had thought only of the copper tang of a split lip.